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Burned bags and tracking numbers: How the White House handles classified files

Two people who worked in previous administrations, who asked to remain anonymous to discuss classified material, said intelligence shop officials were generally relentless in making sure the most classified documents were returned. Some of those documents are numbered, to make it easier to trace classified information back to a particular person.

One of the people who handled such documents in a previous administration said the CIA protects a “chunk” of information that is highly compartmentalized and very difficult to print, and when it is printed, it is usually tracked.

If that kind of information is revealed to be part of the documents found at the homes of Biden, Trump or Pence, the former official said, it would be a violation of the rules for handling classified information. It would mean, the official said, that staff members failed in their duty to keep track of the documents or that someone was deliberately trying to withhold them without authorization.

Rules governing the handling of classified documents have been in place at the White House for decades, according to people familiar with them, though how strictly to follow them is up to each president and his aides.

Trump has often been more negligent with classified information than his peers. In 2019, he posted a classified photo on Twitter of a rocket launch accident in Iran. It was later revealed that he had taken a photo of the classified image from a briefing document and then posted it.

It is unclear how classified documents found at Biden’s home and an office he used in Washington, DC, after leaving the vice presidency, got there. The president’s lawyers have said they date from his time as vice president and senator and have suggested the boxes were inadvertently moved from his White House office when he packed up at the end of his vice presidency.

The classified information circulating in the White House does not normally contain the government’s most precious secrets. It typically relates to diplomatic or military information, sensitive law enforcement discussions, or simply discussions that are ongoing and would be damaging if leaked, according to people who have worked in previous White Houses.