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Biden says he was surprised to learn classified documents were found at his old office

President Joe Biden boarding Air Force One at El Paso International Airport in El Paso, Texas on Jan. 8, 2023, to travel to Mexico City, Mexico. Biden told reporters Tuesday that he was surprised to learn from his attorneys that classified documents had been found at the Penn Biden Center in Washington, D.C., in November.
Andrew Harnik
/
AP
President Joe Biden boarding Air Force One at El Paso International Airport in El Paso, Texas on Jan. 8, 2023, to travel to Mexico City, Mexico. Biden told reporters Tuesday that he was surprised to learn from his attorneys that classified documents had been found at the Penn Biden Center in Washington, D.C., in November.

Updated January 10, 2023 at 7:18 PM ET

President Biden says he was surprised when his staff told him that classified documents had been discovered at the Penn Biden Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C. He also said he's not sure what they contain.

Biden said the documents were found in a box in a locked closet at the think tank and were turned over to the National Archives as soon as they were discovered by his personal attorneys on Nov. 2., before the midterm elections.

"People know I take classified documents and classified information seriously," Biden said.

According to a statement from Richard Sauber, the special counsel to the president, in November the president's personal attorneys discovered classified documents among what appear to be Obama-era records when the current president was vice president.

The Archives collected the documents the morning after they were discovered and the matter is under review by the Justice Department.

Sauber said in a statement that the documents "were not the subject of any previous request or inquiry by the Archives" and that Biden's attorneys have been cooperating with the DOJ and National Archives to ensure all Obama-Biden administration records are "appropriately in the possession of the Archives."

Sauber said Biden periodically used the office space at the center from mid-2017 until the beginning of his 2020 campaign.

A source familiar with the inquiry told NPR's Carrie Johnson that U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland had tasked Trump-era U.S. Attorney John Lausch Jr. in Chicago with reviewing the matter.

The Justice Department declined to comment.

Why this is different from the documents seized at Mar-a-Lago

News of the documents and DOJ review come as former DOJ integrity chief Jack Smith is investigating the potential mishandling of classified documents by former President Donald Trump. Those documents were seized from Trump's Florida home last August. Smith is also looking into aspects of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

But there are some big differences between the Trump and Biden cases.

First, Biden's attorneys say they discovered the documents and turned them over immediately. They weren't even documents Archives was looking for.

Contrast that with Trump. Not only were there far more documents found — more than 160 compared to a "small number" that Biden's lawyers say they discovered — the Justice Department says Trump's team did not turn over all of the documents despite multiple attempts.

Trump took to his social media platform Truth Social Monday night, where he posted: "When is the FBI going to raid the many homes of Joe Biden, perhaps even the White House? These documents were definitely not declassified."

However, there was no need for an FBI search for these documents. Biden's team willfully gave the documents — without prompting, compared to Trump, whose Florida home was searched only after it discovered Trump hadn't turned everything over. That isn't stopping Republicans from spinning this and trying to muddy the waters to help give Trump political cover.

Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., chairman of the House Oversight Committee, sent letters Tuesday to the National Archives and Records Administration and the White House Counsel's Office about his concerns about the recently revealed documents.

"For months, NARA failed to disclose to Committee Republicans or the American public that President Biden — after serving as Vice President — stored highly classified documents in a closet at his personal office. NARA learned about these documents days before the 2022 midterm elections and did not alert the public that President Biden was potentially violating the law," Comer wrote in his letter to the National Archives. "Meanwhile, NARA instigated a public and unprecedented FBI raid at Mar-a-Lago — former President Trump's home — to retrieve presidential records. NARA's inconsistent treatment of recovering classified records held by former President Trump and President Biden raises questions about political bias at the agency."

The other letter, addressed to White House Counsel Stuart Delery, requested documents and information about how the White House has been handling the matter. Comer said the committee is calling for "equal treatment under the law" for Biden given the circumstances.

And Rep. Mike Turner, the top Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, requested a review and damage assessment.

"This discovery of classified information would put President Biden in potential violation of laws protecting national security, including the Espionage Act and Presidential Records Act," Turner wrote to Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines. "Those entrusted with access to classified information have a duty and an obligation to protect it. This issue demands a full and thorough review."

The ODNI is the same organization that was tasked with examining documents found at Trump's Florida home last summer for possible threats to national security, a move that was praised by Democrats.

An NSA lawyer says it's 'exceedingly rare' for an official to steal classified documents

Glenn Gerstell, a former legal counsel at the National Security Agency who has dealt with cases of classified documents winding up in places they shouldn't be, told NPR that it is "exceedingly rare" for an official to steal classified documents.

What's more common, Gerstall said, is "someone inadvertently walking out of the CIA, the NSA, the Pentagon, etc., with some classified document because it was accidentally paper-clipped to the back of another document that wasn't classified."

Gerstall also noted that there's a distinction between someone accidentally leaving with materials they shouldn't have and immediately turning them over upon realizing their mistake, as opposed to "... circumstances in which the federal government asks the person who has the classified document to return it and it's not returned."

NPR Senior Political Editor/Correspondent Domenico Montanaro and NPR National Security Correspondent Greg Myre contributed to this report. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Dustin Jones
Dustin Jones is a reporter for NPR's digital news desk. He mainly covers breaking news, but enjoys working on long-form narrative pieces.