One CIA director gave some to his mistress and biographer while another stored them on his home computer. One presidential staffer spirited them out of the White House in her underwear while another far more senior aide pilfered some from the National Archives by stashing them in his socks.
And one intelligence contractor downloaded thousands of them, gave them to reporters and fled to Russia while another leaked them to one news outlet and got sent to prison.
Amid all the furor over Joe Biden, Donald Trump and Mike Pence having classified documents in their possession, the public is missing the bigger picture - and a far more potentially serious national security problem, security analysts and former Justice Department officials told USA TODAY.
It's not just former presidents and vice presidents who have been caught mishandling classified and even top-secret documents, they said. And it's not just those who have left office but potentially millions of people who are currently working in sensitive positions that require a U.S. national security clearance.
More: After Trump, Biden, Pence, are other former presidents holding classified documents? We asked.
"The universe of individuals who not only have access to classified information in one form or another but who have at different times mishandled it spreads across the entire gamut of the federal workforce and of cleared officials in the judiciary and Congress," said Bradley Moss, a Washington, D.C. national security lawyer who handles mishandling of documents cases.
Millions of potential cases
Moss estimated that there are more than four million people with security clearances, including those in and out of government. In 2017, the Director of National Intelligence put the number at nearly 3 million people, including more than 1.6 million with access to confidential or secret information and another 1.2 million with access to top secret information.
And Moss said many others have automatic clearances that come with the job, including certain elected officials and judges who must deal with classified information such as U.S. spying efforts overseas and military plans and programs.
Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., the new ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, is one of them as a long-serving member of the intelligence community oversight panel.
"I'm very lucky in that I live in, in some ways, the easiest system," said Himes, referring to his easy access to a SCIF, or Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility on Capitol Hill in which to store and review documents.
"That's not true for almost everyone else" working with classified materials throughout the federal government, Himes told USA TODAY.
"Inevitably, some of it walks out the door," usually inadvertently, Himes said. "That's a problem. And it's a problem that we will never fix 100%."
More: Biden and Trump documents expose wider problem: Missing classified records not uncommon
Trump, Biden and Pence have lots of company
Former President Donald Trump's situation is a rarity among mishandling documents cases because he admittedly took them intentionally, and on a grand scale, when leaving office in January 2021. That prompted a standoff between the National Archives, which is tasked with safeguarding the documents, and the former president, who insisted - inaccurately - that he was allowed the keep them. That is the case even if Trump used his presidential authority to declassify them himself, as he claims.
The Presidential Records Act of 1978 clearly requires all White House officials to give up the documents, down to the smallest doodle on a notepad, because they are property of the U.S. government. Ultimately, the FBI swooped in on the basis of a court-ordered search warrant and carted off numerous boxes of documents from Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate and private club in Palm Beach, Florida, last August.
More: Trump Mar-a-Lago home in Florida searched by FBI in probe into handling of classified documents
Biden and Pence, for their part, have said that a much smaller cache of classified documents accidentally found their way into each of their personal collections of documents from their time as vice president. Both said they have been working closely with the Archives and Justice Department to make sure any classified documents are given back, including a negotiated FBI search of Pence's Indiana home which could come within the next few days.
There have been other top officials who have mishandled classified documents, often intentionally.
In 1999, the CIA announced that it had suspended the security clearance of former director John Deutch after an investigation found that, as director, he had been improperly storing highly classified information on an unsecured computer in his home that left it vulnerable to hackers and spies.
Retired Army General David Petraeus had to resign as director of the CIA in 2012 for a sex scandal in which he shared classified documents with his mistress, who was co-writing a biography of Petraeus at the time. Most of them were from his time in the military, including as the head of Central Command and overseer of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Petraeus later pleaded guilty to one count of unauthorized removal and retention of classified material.
Fawn Hall, the former secretary to National Security Council aide Oliver North, revealed in 1987 during the Reagan administration that she slipped documents related to the Iran-Contra scandal under her clothing and smuggled them out of the White House complex to her ex-boss on the day he was fired.
Samuel "Sandy" Berger, President Bill Clinton's national security adviser, was fined and sentenced to two years of probation in 2005 for taking classified material from the National Archives without authorization.
And intelligence contractors Edward Snowden and Reality Winner took classified documents from their respective workplaces and gave them to reporters because they were unhappy with U.S. policy. Authorities said both cases amounted to a grave breach of national security due to the nature of the information they disseminated.
Cases and culprits big and small
Under the Presidential Records Act of 1978, all White House officials from the President to lowly clerks, are required to hand over all work documents, classified or otherwise, to the National Archives when leaving office for safeguarding and eventual declassification and access by the American public.
Virtually all other U.S. officials and contractors are governed by similar information-security requirements when it comes to storing and accessing classified documents. That includes leaving behind all sensitive information when they leave the job, either for the day or forever.
There have been many other cases involving high-ranking U.S. officials and people with top-secret clearances that never came to public light. That's usually the case because they voluntarily returned the documents to where they belonged, according to Moss, Himes and other national security experts interviewed by USA TODAY. For it to be illegal, they said, authorities would have to show that they not only took the documents intentionally, but that they knew they were not supposed to.
"I've had clients who have had two, three, four violations before their agency finally took action to revoke their clearance," said Moss. "And the severity of the mistake depends on the brazenness of it and what you did, if anything, once you realized it."
And for every one of those bold-face names, there are potentially hundreds or even thousands of cases of people - from low-level staffers to top civilian and military officials - who improperly took classified documents from places where they were supposed to be safeguarded, according to Moss, Himes and other security experts interviewed by USA TODAY.
Rep. Himes said accidental mishandling of documents can occur at government facilities like the White House, the vice president's residence at the Naval Observatory and Fort Meade, home of the National Security Agency.
"You can take documents from one room to another, and if you work at Fort Meade, it's not uncommon for somebody to have a desk that is covered with unclassified and classified information," Himes said.
Brandon Van Grack, a former federal prosecutor, said that unlike the Trump, Biden and Pence cases, most mishandling problems "don't happen when you leave office, they happen in real time," and under much more mundane circumstances.
"It is an issue that is far more common than people realize," said Van Grack, who led mishandling investigations and prosecutions while at the National Security Division at Justice Department headquarters. "There's probably a mishandling case happening right now."
"It doesn't typically happen at your home and in these volumes, and with the same sensitivity" as the current cases in the news, Van Grack said. "But mishandling happens all the time, with regularity. And part of this is because there's a lot of classified documents. Part of this is because there's a lot of people who have clearances. And part of this is because people just make mistakes."
Others should be looking
After Pence said he had found classified documents at his Indiana home, the National Archives and Records Administration sent a letter last Thursday to all recent presidents and vice presidents asking them to check their files for classified materials.
On Monday, former Trump CIA director and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo - a possible presidential candidate in 2024 - told a right-wing media outlet that he took the preemptive step of checking his files.
"I've looked. I don't think I have any classified documents," Pompeo said in an interview with "The Dispatch."
Some classified document experts said the Trump, Biden and Pence cases are likely to prompt others to check their files.
"In light of the recent revelations, it would certainly be prudent for other former high-level officials involved in national security affairs to take reasonable steps to review 'personal' documents that they may have taken with them when leaving office, before being formally requested to do so," said Jason R. Baron, former director of litigation at the National Archives.
"Ironically," Baron said, "officials at the very highest levels of government may be the most vulnerable to making mistakes, since White House staff members and high-level staff in Cabinet agencies involved in important matters of national security are much more likely to have access to classified documents on a daily basis."
Van Grack, Moss and other security analysts said some of the lower-level "spillage" cases can be equally problematic, or even more so, depending on the nature of the information contained in the documents. U.S. intelligence policy says that material that has been designated as classified is done so for a reason; because it constitutes a grave threat to U.S. national security if it is not safeguarded, especially if it falls into the wrong hands.
"It's just a matter of math," according to Himes,. "The more people that have access, and the more information there is, the higher the probability that stuff will leak."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden, Trump, Pence not alone: Classified document mishandling common