Experts come out of the woodwork to say mishandling classified docs ‘happens all the time,’ ‘just accidents’

After a summer of outrage over classified documents found at Mar-a-Lago, public figures from news personalities to former intelligence officials are now suggesting the mishandling of classified documents is commonplace.

In August, former President Trump was embroiled in a scandal when the FBI raided his Florida estate to retrieve classified documents. The tables turned in January with revelations classified documents were found at President Biden‘s Delaware residence and D.C. office. 

Suddenly, public figures from powerful institutions have come out of the woodwork to explain how easy it is to mishandle classified material or how far too many documents are classified in the first place.

In early January, former CIA lawyer Brian Greer explained in a CNN segment that mishandling classified documents is a common occurrence.


“Because this type of mishandling happens all the time and now it’s become such a political football with all three last presidential candidates being investigated, I do worry about – while we need to take this all seriously and needs to be investigated, I do worry about over-criminalizing it,” he said. 

“CNN This Morning” had a segment on Thursday where Kaitlan Collins explained how “common” it is for classified documents to be found outside their “places and spaces.” An accompanying news chyron said the common “spillage” of classified info is “Washington’s little secret.”

In the same segment, national security reporter Katie Bo Lillis claimed that such mishaps or “classified spillage” happen “almost literally every day.” Lillis added further, “In more severe cases there can be penalties such as losing security clearance or being fired.”

Lillis noted that “overclassification” of documents is a widely cited concern.

“There’s over 4 million security clearance holders floating around out there, and some national security officials will also acknowledge that the U.S. Government has a big problem with overclassification,” she said. “There are just millions and millions of pieces of classified information, not all are exquisite.”


A Washington Post “Fact Checker” analysis by Glenn Kessler posted about the same phenomenon on January 11. 

The piece, headlined “Biden, Trump and classified documents: An explainer,” answered the question “Do classified documents often show up in someone’s possession improperly?”

Kessler cited a lawyer with an extensive history with this subject.

“It happens all the time, according to Mark S. Zaid, a lawyer who defends people who have committed security violations,” he wrote. “People retire or leave a job, they pack up boxes — and then sometimes years later they discover they accidentally stored a classified document in their garage or attic.”

Zaid said it is “hoarders” who face legal trouble for allegedly bringing “a lot of classified documents” home without authorization.


NPR published a piece on the same “overclassification” concern on Tuesday. Oona Hathaway, a law professor at Yale University and former special counsel at the Pentagon, was interviewed.

She claimed that overclassification has “been a problem for decades,” noting further that “People who have been looking at classification and thinking about classification have recognized for a very long time that the system is out of control.”

Hathaway also commented on the Biden documents, saying, “Well, it’s hard to know exactly what’s happening with the Biden administration because we haven’t seen those documents. And so it’s hard to know if those are documents that really should not have been classified.”

She theorized on the way they were stored as well.

“The fact that they’re mixed in with a lot of documents that were not classified is suggestive that they were just part of a set of files where classified information kind of got snuck in and they inadvertently took the boxes with them when they left,” Hathaway speculated.


On Thursday, NPR published a piece, headlined “Is the U.S. government designating too many documents as ‘classified’?” based on an interview with historian Matthew Connelly heard on “Fresh Air.”

“On average, Connelly says, records are marked as classified three times every second, generating so many secret documents that it’s practically impossible to preserve them all,” NPR said.

When asked about how Biden handled classified documents, Connelly said, “I think you can look at it two ways: One way of looking at it is that this is just more evidence about how state secrecy is out of control. They just can’t keep track of all the secrets that they’re generating, because there are just too many of them. And so even if you credit Joseph Biden and the people around him and you think that they were responsible [stewards of these documents], then you still have to ask yourself: How is it that they lost track of records that, apparently, at least in some cases, were classified as top secret?”

ABC News contributor and former acting undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at the Department of Homeland Security John Cohen spoke about the issue on ABCNews’ “Start Here” podcast.

“Unless you are working in an organization like the CIA or another intelligence community organization, where all you’re working with is classified information, and these types of security violations are not really that uncommon when you are working with large quantities of documents and you are co-mingling classified reports with unclassified documents,” he said, “It is not uncommon for there to be situations where, inadvertently, people will mix them together and walk out of a SCIF or secured facility with a document they shouldn’t have.”

He went on, “Security violations sound very, very nefarious, but in many cases, they’re just accidents.”