Some in the US are already talking about a new pandemic. TV comedian Seth Meyers, for example, recently joked on his talk show: "You hear about one case and then the next. And before you know it we're all locked in our apartments wiping our mail and afraid of secret documents fluttering in. " Most of them immediately understood what Meyers was referring to: the discovery of secret documents from earlier years in office in the private rooms of various top politicians.
In the spotlight -- or rather, in the light of investigators' searchlights -- are three men: ex-President Donald Trump, incumbent Joe Biden and Trump's former vice president, Mike Pence. It all started with Trump. His exit from the White House on January 20, two years ago, was messy to say the least. Until recently, it was not clear whether he would voluntarily leave the residence and official residence of all US Presidents for more than 200 years. To this day, he has not admitted his electoral defeat.
Helicopter images showed moving boxes carted out of the White House and loaded into vans. It may also contain the secret documents that the FBI retrieved during a raid on Trump's private home Mar-a-Lago in Florida last summer. The FBI had become active because the Republican refused to hand over all the documents in his possession despite several requests. He is said to have had more than 300 classified documents at home.
Secret documents discovered in Biden's garage
The indignation was great, even with the successor. In a television interview in September, Biden said he wondered how something like this could happen. How could someone be so irresponsible. Questions that probably annoy him today - at least since he was asked them himself. "What were you thinking?" a reporter asked after it became known that secret documents had also been discovered in his garage.
Biden doesn't like questions like that. It quickly seems as if he feels stepped on his tie. It's not as if the documents were lying on the street, the President of the Democrats snapped back. After all, the garage was locked. However, Trump did not have the files on the street either.
The big difference between the two cases, as the White House tirelessly emphasizes, is that the Biden team - unlike Trump - worked closely with the responsible authorities from the very first moment to arrange the return of the documents. Nevertheless, accusations of double standards and hypocrisy quickly became loud. But even the Republicans could not wallow in their gloating for long.
Secret documents also found on Mike Pence
On Tuesday it became known that secret documents were also found on Trump's former Vice Pence. He immediately handed them over to the National Archives, his lawyers said. Pence is generally considered to be extremely conscientious. So if someone like him has secret documents stored, the problem may be somewhere else.
One problem is the sheer volume of classified information in the United States, explained Columbia University historian Matthew Connelly on radio station NPR. In 2012, three documents were classified as secret every second. In the meantime, one no longer tries to estimate how many secret documents are in circulation. Around four million people in the United States have access to secret files, lawyer Bradley Moss, who specializes in secret information, told CNN. Tom Blanton, an expert on classified information, reported to the British BBC that they were constantly being misplaced.
Secret is not always secret: The US system roughly differentiates between "confidential", "secret" and "top secret" information - depending on how much damage publication would presumably cause. However, it is not always clear which information actually endangers national security.
Can AI help?
A former lawyer for President Richard Nixon's administration said years ago that even the publication of the "top secret" Pentagon Papers - around 7,000 pages on US policy in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967 - did not pose a threat. Far too many documents are classified as secret.
According to historian Connelly, one possible solution for determining which documents should not or should no longer be withheld could be artificial intelligence. Often those who have access to state secrets are not interested in publication. The logic behind it: If decisions are not understandable, nobody can be held accountable.
Written to all surviving presidents
The Department of Justice must now clarify whether Trump, Biden and Pence have to answer. Trump probably has the most to fear - not because he took the documents with him, but because he didn't want to hand them over again. Politically, however, it will be difficult to impeach the ex-president, but not Biden. For Pence, the topic is uncomfortable because he is also said to have ambitions for the presidency.
It could soon become clear whether even more alumni are affected. The National Archives have written to all surviving presidents and their deputies asking them to keep an eye out for classified documents at home. According to a report in the Washington Post, Barack Obama's office has already let it be known that the Obamas have nothing left lying around. However, others thought so too.