The fear and trepidation over accidentally letting a secret slip is also hammered into lawmakers’ intelligence staffers, who handle the classified material as further protection against absent-minded members of Congress. To get a security clearance, these staffers undergo purposefully intimidating, invasive, and multi-stepped background checks conducted by either the Pentagon or FBI, and sometimes both. Even after being cleared, new hires are forbidden to start until they sign a nondisclosure agreement—effectively sealing their lips for life.
“Only certain staffers are allowed to possess classified information in the Capitol. Usually, they keep it in our Intelligence Committee, and they walk around with a locked bag that has them in them,” says Rubio, the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “So you can’t make a photocopy and send it to you as an attachment in email.”
When it comes to viewing America’s secrets, even leaders at the Capitol don’t get special access. “They would bring them in. I would read them. They take them out. So they couldn’t even stay on my desk,” says Durbin. “I can’t understand why the executive branch has such a lax approach to this that we have three major elected officials with these documents in their possession and not explaining why.”
Other committees can request to see classified materials in the Intelligence Committee’s possession. If the request is approved by the select panel, the materials are ferried—under lock and key—to other lawmakers with a stern warning: “Such material shall be accompanied by a verbal or written notice to the recipients advising of their responsibility to protect such materials.” Each night, sensitive materials must be returned to a secure SCIF. A written record of the secret’s travels is required.
That’s why the confusion at the Capitol is so bipartisan these days: How does one misplace such a sensitive document? Let alone batches of them?
“I don’t know how you actually do that. That’s the question, but we’re talking about the president and vice president, and that’s a little different,” says Republican senator Lyndsey Graham of South Carolina, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Restrictions are so tight that Rubio doesn’t even believe news stories claiming classified documents were found dating back to Biden’s Senate days. He calls those reports “puzzling.”
“I’ve heard that in the media. It has never been confirmed to me … that one would be bizarre,” Rubio says. “So, frankly, I don’t know, on the Senate piece, how that could be possible.”
The other perplexing thing is, the technology employed at the Capitol is widespread in Washington, especially the secure rooms used to protect the materials. “The Situation Room is a SCIF. There’s SCIFs in the military. There’s SCIFs in the FBI,” says Representative Mike Quigley of Illinois. “I can’t explain—there’s no excuse for it. There’s no excuse for mishandling documents ever.”
A Democrat who teaches a course at the University of Chicago called “Contemporary US Intelligence,” Quigley says the scandal reveals a cavalier attitude in the executive branch that’s unacceptable. As Quigley points out, classified materials are securely handled by agencies all around the US, far beyond the Beltway. The FBI shares sensitive intel with local police departments from coast to coast. Classified documents are also housed in some academic institutions. And Quigley says some documents are shared with the private sector, like military contractors. In short, this appears to be an executive branch problem, and he wants Congress to be bullish as it moves to rein in the White House’s willy-nilly handling of classified materials.
“Of course we have to because we’re the ones who do laws and allow people to have classified information,” Quigley says.
The numerous security procedures at the Capitol are in place to keep lawmakers from doing exactly what Biden, Trump, and Pence did. It seems to be working. “There’s a reason we have classification,” Warner told reporters at the Capitol. “Maybe we overclassify, but unless the rules change, you’ve got to.”
Warner says his committee’s job is now to make sure what’s working at the Capitol is replicated in the executive branch. “We got a broken system,” Warner said, “and we got to fix this.”
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