Fear and trepidation over the accidental disclosure of a secret is also hammered into the legislators’ intelligence staff, who treat classified material as an additional defense against absent-minded members of Congress. To gain security clearance, these employees undergo targeted, intimidating, invasive, and multi-stage background checks by either the Pentagon or the FBI, or sometimes both. Even after being screened, new employees are prohibited from starting work until they sign a non-disclosure agreement, effectively sealing their mouth for life.
“Only certain employees are allowed to have classified information in the Capitol. They usually keep them in our intelligence committee and go around with a locked bag in which they are, ”said Rubio, vice chairman of the Senate intelligence committee. “So you can’t make a photocopy and send it to you as an email attachment.”
When it comes to viewing America’s secrets, even the leaders in the Capitol don’t have special access. “They brought them. I have 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 is so careless about this that we have three big elected officials with these documents in their hands and not explaining why.”
Other committees may request access to classified material held by the Intelligence Committee. If the request is approved by an elected commission, the materials are forwarded – under lock and key – to other legislators with a stern warning: materials.” Confidential materials must be returned to secure SCIF each night. A written travel account of the secret is required.
That’s why there’s such a mess in the Capitol today: how can you lose such a secret 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,” says South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, 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 new stories claims that classified documents dating back to the days of the Biden Senate have been discovered. He calls these messages “puzzling.”
“I heard about it in the media. I was never confirmed … that it would be strange, ”says Rubio. “So, frankly, I don’t know, in terms of the Senate article, how that’s possible.”
Another puzzling thing is that the technology used in the Capitol is widespread in Washington, especially the secure rooms used to protect materials. “The situation room is SCIF. The army has SCIF. The FBI has SCIF,” says spokesman Mike Quigley of Illinois. “I can’t explain—there’s no excuse for that. There is no excuse for mishandling documents.”
A Democrat who teaches a course at the University of Chicago called Modern US Intelligence, Quigley says the scandal shows an unacceptable cavalier attitude from the executive branch. As Quigley points out, classified materials are securely stored by agencies throughout the US, far 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 being shared with the private sector, like military contractors. In short, this appears to be an executive branch issue, and he wants Congress to be optimistic as it tries to rein in willy-nilly the White House’s handling of classified material.
“Of course we should, because we are the ones who make laws and let people have classified information,” Quigley says.
There are numerous security procedures in place at the Capitol to prevent lawmakers from doing what Biden, Trump and Pence have done. It seems to work. “There’s a reason we have classification,” Warner told reporters at the Capitol. “We may be exaggerating, but if the rules don’t change, you should.”
Warner says his committee’s job now is to make sure that what works in the Capitol gets replicated in the executive branch. “Our system is broken,” Warner said, “and we need to fix it.”