WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden on Monday launched a task force aimed at addressing the “systemic” problem of mishandling classified information during presidential transitions, days after a Justice Department special counsel’s sharply critical report said he had done just that.
The Presidential Records Transition Task Force will study past transitions to determine best practices for safeguarding classified information from an outgoing administration, the White House said. It will also assess the need for changes to existing policies and procedures to prevent the removal of sensitive information that by law should be kept with the National Archives and Records Administration.
The report from special counsel Robert Hur listed dozens of sensitive documents found at Biden’s home in Wilmington, Delaware, and at his former Washington office. The papers were marked as classified or later assessed to contain classified information.
The majority of the documents, Hur’s report stated, appeared to have been mistakenly removed from government offices, though he also detailed some items that Biden appeared to knowingly retain. He concluded that criminal charges were not warranted in the matter..
“I take responsibility for not having seen exactly what my staff was doing,” Biden said last week after Hur’s report was released. He added that “things that appeared in my garage, things that came out of my home, things that were moved were moved not by me but my staff.”
Biden aides first discovered some of the documents as they cleared out the offices of the Penn-Biden Center in Washington in 2022, and more were discovered during subsequent searches by Biden’s lawyers and the FBI.
Biden promptly reported the discoveries to federal authorities, which prompted the special counsel probe. That’s unlike former President Donald Trump, who is accused of resisting efforts to return classified government records that he moved to his Florida residence before leaving office in 2021 and of obstructing the investigation into them in a separate special counsel investigation.
In even the best of circumstances, presidential transitions can be chaotic as records of the outgoing administration are transferred to the National Archives and thousands of political appointees leave their jobs to make way for the incoming administration. Officials of multiple administrations have said there is a systemic problem with mishandling of classified information by senior government officials, particularly around transitions, magnified by rampant over-classification across the government.
Former Vice President Mike Pence turned over some classified documents discovered at his home last year. And former officials from all levels of government discover they are in possession of classified material and turn them over to the authorities at least several times a year.
“Previous presidential transitions, across administrations stretching back decades, have fallen short in ensuring that classified presidential records are properly archived at NARA,” the White House said. “In light of the many instances that have come to light in recent years revealing the extent of this systemic issue, President Biden is taking action to strengthen how administrations safeguard classified documents during presidential transitions and to help address this longstanding problem going forward.”
Hur’s report said many of the documents recovered at the Penn Biden Center in Washington, in parts of Biden’s Delaware home and in his Senate papers at the University of Delaware were retained by “mistake.”
Biden could not have been prosecuted as a sitting president, but Hur’s report states that he would not recommend charges against Biden regardless. Investigators did find evidence of willful retention of a subset of records found in Biden’s Wilmington, Delaware house, including in a garage, office and basement den, but not enough to suggest charges. The files pertain to a troop surge in Afghanistan during the Obama administration that Biden had vigorously opposed. He kept records that documented his position, including a classified letter to Obama during the 2009 Thanksgiving holiday.
Biden also retained his personal notebooks after leaving the vice presidency, some of which investigators found contained classified information, though other officials have kept similar documents as their personal property.
“President Biden takes classified information seriously – he returned the documents that were found, he fully cooperated with the investigation, and it concluded that there was no case,” said Ian Sams, a spokesperson for the White House Counsel’s Office. “Now he is taking action to help strengthen future transitions to better prevent classified documents from being accidentally packed up and removed from the government, like we have seen with officials from every administration for decades.”
The task force will be headed by Katy Kale, deputy administrator of the General Services Administration, who was assistant to the president for management and administration during the Obama administration, the post that oversees the human resources and document retention functions at the White House.
The panel will include representatives from the White House, General Services Administration, NARA, the National Security Council and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
The task force is to produce its recommendations ahead of the next presidential transition. It is set to operate independently from the White House Transition Coordinating Council, which is chaired by the White House chief of staff and required by law to be stood up six months before any presidential election.