A man walks past boxes that were moved out of the Eisenhower Executive Office building, just outside the West Wing, inside the White House complex, Jan. 14, 2021, in Washington. The National Archives has asked former U.S. presidents and vice presidents to re-check their personal records for any classified documents following the news that President Joe Biden and former Vice President Mike Pence had such documents in their possession, two people familiar with the matter said Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. Credit: Gerald Herbert / AP

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Our nation’s secrets have been in the news recently. Just ask President Joe Biden. Or former President Donald Trump. Or former Vice President Mike Pence.

This has led many to ask, essentially, what the heck is happening? Can’t the government maintain control of its secrets?

But here is one of the not-so-secret secrets that everyone who has worked with classified information knows: there is a massive problem with overclassification in the federal government.    

We have no idea what, exactly, was in the classified documents that were found in the various locations recently. They could be incredibly dangerous materials revealing the names of informants close to Kim Jong Un. Or they could be relatively mundane documents, similar to those declassified and released online for public view.    

Until and unless we find out what was in the documents, it is hard to really accuse anyone of substantively harming the country. But that does not mean their actions were OK.  

Pence seems to be the least bad. Current reports indicate that a sealed moving box in his Indiana home contained classified documents.  

So, between the other two, is Biden’s or Trump’s scandal worse?

Both. Both are worse. But we don’t know how bad they are.  

Trump’s fight has been foolish from the get-go. It is redeeming in its own odd way. Not for him but for the country.

He intentionally took the documents to Mar-a-Lago. The fact that there was significant back-and-forth between his team and the federal government made it very clear that he had the documents. When the FBI went to the property to serve a warrant, they knew what they were after. Trump’s legal argument — that he declassified the documents — was creative, if unavailing.

Trump openly challenged the provisions of the Presidential Records Act. Nothing was inadvertent. All eyes were on him during the period he had the documents. His team apparently knew they were there. The FBI knew they were there. The National Archives knew they were there.  

That relative publicity provides a fair amount of security. Since it was a live issue, someone would have probably noticed a foreign national attempting to go through the former president’s living quarters.

Biden’s story is different. He came out strong against Trump’s folly. But, now, it turns out he had classified materials spread over several different places. Clearly — or at least hopefully — Biden had no idea they were there.  

How long had they been there? Some are reported to be from his Senate days. In the years they have been available, who happened across them? It certainly isn’t outside the realm of possibility that Chinese or Russian intelligence services might try to target a former vice president. Were any of these misplaced documents worth seeing?

Trump’s scandal is worse because he knew what he was doing. That goes to his state of mind. But with the eye of the FBI closely upon him, the federal government probably has a really good idea about who may have come in contact with the Mar-a-Lago documents.

Biden is the exact opposite. His actions apparently were negligent, not intentional. Yet he “misplaced” classified documents for years, with absolutely no control or oversight by the federal government. When the answer to the question about who likely may have come across the documents is “unknown,” that’s a big problem.  

Our nation has too many secrets. Classification reform is sorely necessary; yet, until it happens, rules are rules. Maybe the documents that Biden, Trump, and Pence had are all much ado about nothing, a symptom of a bureaucracy overly-obsessed with opacity. Or maybe the documents they had would cause “exceptionally grave damage” to the country if it was compromised.  

Whatever the details, to use an old phrase from the current president, these situations are big “effin” deals. The special counsels will need to share much more before the 2024 campaigns begin in earnest so that the public can make informed decisions.    

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Michael Cianchette, Opinion columnist

Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.