When archivists at Bates College combed through a trove of documents given to them by Sen. Edmund S. Muskie, a former secretary of state and Bates alumnus, they turned up 98 classified documents that he’d been keeping in his personal files. Some were sensitive papers involving the Iran-contra affair of the 1980s. Some carried information that should never have left secure hands.

For people who work with classified documents, including university archivists, these discoveries weren’t unusual. The handling of such papers by onetime officeholders is often sloppy, as the cases of former president Donald Trump, former vice president Mike Pence and President Biden have all shown in recent months. And when officials leave government and donate their papers to be kept in special collections at university archives, they can pose problems for the archivists who find themselves holding state secrets.

Government officials have wrestled with this problem for years. The Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has well-honed procedures for when university archivists, researchers or others in the public alert them to questionable papers.


When the archivists get the papers, which can fill hundreds of boxes, they begin the laborious process of cataloguing them. That’s when the sensitive documents tend to turn up. Archivists are supposed to request an ISOO review of the papers.