Many people are wondering how it is possible that former Vice President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump kept sensitive information in unprotected, unapproved locations throughout their time out of government.
That question (and others like it) necessitates bipartisan work to find an answer and implement strict record-keeping procedures in the White House. However, unless we address the root cause of the problem—namely, the widespread availability of classified paper—further classified information will undoubtedly be discovered “outside the wire” in the future.
From former PDB chief Beth Sanner
Opinion: Mr. President, it's time to go digital – CNN https://t.co/83vVLFxdjd
— Hayden Center (@mvhaydencenter) January 25, 2023
No amount of finger-pointing or procedure improvement can address the underlying risk presented by the massive volume of classified material circulating around the White House and other national security organizations and departments.
As a former member of the White House National Security Council (NSC), I can verify that there has never been a foolproof, centralized system to monitor such documents. Neither would we see any success from such an attempt.
The absence of paper is often not noticed until it is discovered.
Then, where does all this secret paperwork originate from? Let’s take a second look at the White House, where the circulation of sensitive papers amongst employees and the president is not only commonplace but very necessary.
During policy discussions, meetings with foreign leaders, and international travel, NSC staff routinely prepares binders containing secret documents. The president receives classified information from the national security adviser, the chief of staff, and senior NSC employees in both prearranged and ad hoc encounters.
White House Situation Room receives secret intelligence reports, diplomatic communications, and policy suggestions in hard form throughout the day from the intelligence community. Every national security organization functions in a similar fashion.
Keeping this in mind, it’s not hard to foresee how sensitive information could leak out, even under the best of circumstances. Paper can’t be hacked, but it can be mixed in with the wrong files, forgotten about, or even stolen. As a result, there is a chance that critical information will be viewed by the wrong people or, even worse, leaked to foreign intelligence, which might have catastrophic results.
For nearly three years, I was in charge of putting together and distributing the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), which included serving as Trump’s intelligence briefer. During that time, this was one of my biggest concerns.
Were he to ask us to leave sensitive materials in his office after our briefings, would they get lost among the newspapers and periodicals that he so famously left strewn about his desk? Discreet paperwork has the risk of being thrown away or read by the wrong people.
Recent events, such as the discovery of a secret page at Biden’s Delaware home among documents organizing his son’s funeral and the discovery of classified materials intermixed with Trump’s personal stuff, lend credence to my fears. It is reasonable to suggest that papers get mixed up, especially in the frenetic clean-out towards the conclusion of any presidential administration, and that we do not yet know the whole paper trail in these cases.
We need to cut down on the amount of classified documentation in the White House to prevent its inadvertent or intentional loss. This implies moving over to more secure and accountable tablet devices like the iPad or Surface Go for the distribution of classified information.
The risk of unauthorized users or hackers gaining access to classified material due to tablet loss or mishandling is reduced by employing basic techniques like limited network access, passwords, biometric authentication, and incorporating timed wipeout applications.
Since 2012, the intelligence community has begun generating the PDB, which is then delivered on tablets to the president and other top national security leaders. A team of analysts works overnights, six days a week, to create and curate the PDB and other reports. These briefers disperse all throughout Washington, DC, primarily using tablets, to provide the information to the highest-ranking decision-makers.
There is no need to make any sacrifices in order to benefit from getting information on a tablet. To be more precise, the PDB tablet interface is cutting edge, classy, and very customizable with the addition of some backend programming and support.
Who wouldn’t want a device that automatically updates, neatly organizes everything from policy proposals to interactive maps, and allows for annotation via a stylus or keyboard? From what I’ve seen, I think the White House could start using tablets, at least in a limited capacity, quite rapidly.
There are still situations that call for paper, and for obvious reasons, there can and should be exceptions to a complete switch to digital.
However, a smaller volume of classified hard copies would be considerably simpler to track meticulously.
Culturally ingrained behaviors and the lack of a demand from leadership that is biased toward boomers create hurdles for transferring more secret content to a tablet environment. All I can say to my contemporaries is that we have the technology, and it’s better than you may imagine.
A detail that has gotten little attention A 2019 decree from the Trump administration mandated the complete transition to digital record-keeping across all government departments by the end of 2022. While it was a step in the right direction, that program, like others before it, hasn’t stopped the parallel production and circulation of paper for federal employees and the public.
It will take time and resources to change the culture, but we must act with greater urgency in securing the most secret information.
The White House is at the center of the current scandals, so there is no better time or location to get started.