The fear and trepidation of accidentally leaking a secret is also instilled in lawmakers’ intelligence officers, who work with classified material as an added safeguard against absent-minded members of Congress. In order to obtain a security clearance, these employees undergo an intentionally intimidating, invasive, and multi-step background check conducted by either the Pentagon or the FBI, or sometimes both. Even after release, new employees are prohibited from starting work until they sign a non-disclosure agreement, effectively sealing their lips for life.
“Only certain employees are allowed to have classified information in the Capitol. They usually keep it in our intelligence committee and walk around with a sealed bag that they’re in,” says Rubio, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “So you can’t make a photocopy and send it to yourself as an email attachment.”
When it comes to viewing America’s secrets, not even Capitol leaders get special access. “They brought it, I read it. They take them out. So they couldn’t even stay on my desk,” says Durbin. “I can’t understand why the executive branch is so lax about this that we have three major elected officials with these documents and no explanation as to why.”
Other committees may request access to classified material held by the Intelligence Committee. If the request is approved by the select group, the materials are released — under lock and key — to other lawmakers, with a stern warning: “Such materials must be accompanied by a verbal or written notice to recipients informing them of their responsibility to protect such materials.” Each night, sensitive materials must be returned to the secure SCIF. A written record of mystery travels is required.
That’s why the confusion in the Capitol these days is so bipartisan: How can you go wrong with such a sensitive document? Not to mention their parties?
“I don’t know how you actually do it. That’s the question, but we’re talking about the president and the vice president, and that’s a little different,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
The restrictions are so tight that Rubio doesn’t even believe news reports that classified documents dating back to Biden’s days in the Senate have been found. He calls the reports “amazing.”
“I heard it in the media. It’s never been confirmed to me … that would be amazing,” says Rubio. “So frankly, I don’t know how that could be possible in the Senate bill.”
Even more disconcerting is that the technology used in the Capitol is widespread in Washington, especially the secure rooms used to protect materials. “The situation room is a SCIF. The military has a SCIF. The FBI has a SCIF, says Mike Quigley of Illinois. “I can’t explain – there’s no excuse for it. There is never an excuse for mishandling documents.”
Quigley, a Democrat who teaches a course called “Modern U.S. Intelligence” at the University of Chicago, says the scandal shows an unacceptable callous attitude by the executive branch. As Quigley points out, classified material is securely handled by agencies across the US, well beyond the Beltway. The FBI shares sensitive information with local police departments from coast to coast. Secret documents are also kept in some academic institutions. And Quigley says some documents are used by the private sector, such as military contractors. In short, it appears to be an executive branch problem, and he wants Congress to be optimistic as he seeks to rein in the White House’s willy-nilly handling of classified material.
“Of course we have to because we make laws and we allow people to have classified information,” Quigley says.
Numerous Capitol security procedures are in place to prevent 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’re overclassifying, but unless the rules change, you have to.”
Warner says his committee’s job now is to make sure what works in the Capitol is replicated in the executive branch. “We have a broken system,” Warner said, “and we have to fix it.”