WASHINGTON (AP) — On a winter’s day in 1984, a briefcase filled with classified government documents showed up at a building in Pittsburgh, carried by someone who surely shouldn’t have had them.
That someone was 13-year-old Kristin Preble. She brought the newspapers to school as a demonstration project for her eighth grade class. Her father had found them in her Cleveland hotel room several years earlier and brought them home as souvenirs.
While a different kind of show and tale is played out in Washington about the mishandling of state secrets by the Trump and now Biden administrations, the schoolgirl episode four decades ago is a reminder that other presidents have also let safe information spread.
The Grade 8 escapade and what is known as Debategate both involved the mishandling of confidential documents that Democratic President Jimmy Carter used to prepare a debate with Republican rival Ronald Reagan in Cleveland on October 28, 1980. In the latter case, the campaign obtained – some said stolen – Carter’s briefing materials for the debate.
In today’s docu-dramas, special councils have been commissioned to investigate Donald Trump’s post-presidential cache of classified documents, which he initially resisted handing over, and Joe Biden’s pre-presidential caches, which he gladly gave up when they were discovered but he did not disclose it to the public for months.
With classified material also found in former Vice President Mike Pence’s home, there’s now a palpable feeling in the halls of power that as more officials or ex-officials scour their closets or wardrobes, more moments like oops will emerge.
On Thursday, the National Archives wrote to representatives of all former presidents and former vice presidents of the Reagan administration to ask that their personal records be re-checked for any classified documents, according to two people familiar with the matter. They were not authorized to talk about the documentary investigation and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Carter files got into Kristin’s hands through a somewhat tortuous path.
Two days after the 1980 debate, businessman Alan Preble found the documents in his Cleveland hotel room, apparently left behind by Carter’s publicist Jody Powell. Preble took them to his Franklin Park home, where they remained for more than three years as a vaguely treasured keepsake.
“We’d looked into them but didn’t think they were important,” Carol Preble, Kristin’s mother, said at the time, seemingly unimpressed by the confidential markings. But for the social studies class, Kristin “thought they’d be really cool. I thought they’d be great too.”
The girl went to Ingomar Middle School on January 19, 1984, with the zipped case.
Teacher Jim DeLisio’s eyes popped when he saw the warnings on the documents inside. These include: “Classified, Confidential, Executive” and “U.S. Government Property”.
“I really didn’t want to watch it,” she said later. “I was too… scared. I didn’t want to know.
Curiosity got the better of him. That night, he said, he and his wife and daughter pored over the documents, containing “everything you want to know from A to Z” about US and world developments. One folder was marked “Iran”. Libya was also in the fray.
Unable to reach Kristin’s family by phone, DeLisio called the FBI the next day, who quickly retrieved the documents.
A Justice Department official who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity at the time said the bundle of documents was 4 inches (10 centimeters) thick.
Despite returning the secrets to where they belonged, DeLisio was reprimanded by school officials for calling authorities before reaching out to the Preble family or them. The discovery fueled a larger investigation by a Democrat-led congressional committee into official Carter documents obtained from the successful Reagan campaign.
Reagan’s Justice Department declined calls from the committee to appoint a special counsel on that matter. A court case seeking to force that appointment collapsed, and no prosecution was brought. The debate has faded, but not the concern about how confidential documents are handled by those in power.
As for Kristin, she’s earned a niche in history and a “B” in her school project.
This story draws on that of Associated Press writer Marcia Dunn in January 1984 and the search for Rhonda Shaffner in New York.