Congress Has a Lo-Fi Plan to Fix the Classified Documents Mess
Congress is coming for the nation's intelligence community. Bipartisan anger at mounting scandals over the mishandling of classified material by two presidents and a vice president is now palpable. The catch is, lawmakers don't entirely know where the problem lies.
Based on what they know so far, US lawmakers are exploring lo-fi fixes to prevent another of these high-stakes scandals. At the top of their minds is requiring White House protocols to mirror those governing the handling of classified material on Capitol Hill. But they're hampered by a lack of information about how so many secrets ended up in insecure locations.
"I think that the standards that have been applied in Congress clearly didn't apply to the executive branch, in terms of handling all this material," says Dick Durbin, the Senate majority whip and Illinois Democrat. "Clearly, we've got to resolve the differences."
Lawmakers have been by turns frustrated and furious since last August when the FBI recovered more than 300 classified documents--including ones marked "Top Secret"--at former president Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago home, a discovery that resulted in a special counsel investigation. Last month, the White House revealed that in November, lawyers of President Joe Biden found 10 classified documents in the office he used after serving as vice president. In the ensuing weeks, at least another 10 were found--allegedly from both his Senate and VP days--in various searches of his properties, including in his garage. Roughly a week after the attorney general appointed a special counsel to investigate the president, about a dozen classified documents were found at former vice president Mike Pence's home. Still, Congress has yet to be briefed on any of the misplaced national secrets.
Bipartisan frustration boiled over last week when the director of national intelligence (DNI), Avril Haines, told members of the Senate Intelligence Committee that the administration's hands are tied due to two ongoing special counsel investigations into the mishandled materials.
"All things will be on the table to try to make sure that doesn't happen," Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, told reporters after leaving the classified briefing last Wednesday.
Over the weekend, the Department of Justice sent a letter promising the committee that it is "actively working to enable sharing information with the Committee." But yesterday, Warner and his Republican counterpart on the Intelligence Committee, Marco Rubio of Florida, sent off another stern letter to the attorney general and DNI laying out, as Warner characterized it, the "deep frustration" of lawmakers and "the absurdity" of the administration's position. With Congress currently lacking the, well, intelligence needed to fully understand how so much classified material landed in the wrong places, bipartisan confusion abounds. That's left lawmakers collectively scratching their heads, and asking: How--physically--is this snowballing classification scandal even possible? From what little they know, this White House problem is virtually impossible to replicate just down the street at their office, the Capitol.
"All I know is that around here when you look at a document, you leave it in the room, and then you leave. The document doesn't leave with you," says Pennsylvania senator Bob Casey, a Democrat. "Part of the problem right now is, we don't know a great deal yet about details and specifics, so we have to wait and see."
A man carries a locked document bag into the Senate SCIF at the U.S. Capitol.
The Capitol's no stranger to national secrets. How many? It's a secret. And a well-kept one. Unless an administration official or military officer brings sensitive materials--locked in a thin protective case--to present to lawmakers, classified documents don't leave the Capitol grounds. Officers stand guard outside the secure rooms they're stored in. IDs are checked. Presidents can send a liaison to Intelligence Committee hearings, but if a high-ranking government official shows up without being "formally invited," Senate Intelligence Committee rules demand they be turned away.
To view sensitive materials, policymakers first must turn over all electronics--phones; tablets; or anything else with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or cellular capabilities--before entering a SCIF (pronounced "skiff"). Those Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities boast being impenetrable to spies and hackers. Note-taking is allowed, but notes don't leave the room. A clerk even maintains a classified calendar on behalf of each committee member that stays vaulted in the secret rooms.
Pictures and photocopies aren't just forbidden; lawmakers wouldn't dare consider either. WIRED interviewed more than 15 members of Congress' two Intelligence Committees, and each maintains they've never taken a classified document home. In fact, they're pretty sure they couldn't if they tried.
That's why last week's revelation that Pence also had classified documents stunned the secret keepers of the Senate: The first set of misplaced secrets was scandalous; the second revealed we have a partisan problem; the third convinced lawmakers that there's a pattern--and the nation has a problem on its hands.
"It's extraordinary, given how careful we have to be," says Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican.
To grasp why the mishandling of classified materials troubles Congress so completely, it's important to understand the culture of Capitol Hill. Besides questions of war and peace or the weightiness of an impeachment trial--where senators are also forced to surrender their electronics before sitting as the jury--there's nothing that ties politicians in knots more than classified information. They speak publicly for a living, so the anxiety over accidentally saying something that's officially a state secret is understandable.
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."