The fear and trepidation of accidentally leaking a secret is also hammered into the hearts of lawmakers’ intelligence officers, who treat classified material as further protection from absentminded members of Congress. To gain security clearance, these employees are subjected to intentionally intimidating, invasive, and multi-step background checks administered by either the Pentagon or the FBI, and sometimes both. Even after release, new hires are barred from starting until they sign a non-disclosure agreement, effectively sealing their lips for life.
“Only certain employees are permitted to have classified information in the Capitol. They usually keep it in our Intelligence Committee and walk around with a locked bag that has it in it,” says Rubio, the vice chair 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 seeing America’s secrets, even Capitol leaders aren’t given special access. “They would bring her in. I would read them. You 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 the fact that we have three major elected officials who have these documents in their possession and don’t explain why.”
Other committees may request to see classified material held by the Intelligence Committee. If the application is approved by the selected panel, the materials will be forwarded – under lock and key – to other lawmakers with a stern warning: “This material must be accompanied by an oral or written notice to recipients advising them of their responsibilities to protect these materials.” Sensitive materials must be returned to a secure SCIF each night. A written record of the Mystery’s travels is required.
That’s why the confusion in the Capitol these days is so bipartisan: How do you misplace such a sensitive document? Let alone batches of it?
“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 Republican Sen. Lyndsey Graham of South Carolina, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
The restrictions are so severe that Rubio doesn’t even believe news reports claiming classified documents from Biden’s Senate days have been found. He calls these reports “enigmatic”.
“I heard that in the media. It was never confirmed to me… that one would be bizarre,” says Rubio. “So, honestly, I don’t see how that could be possible in the Senate play.”
The other confusing thing is that the technology used in the Capitol is widely used in Washington, particularly the safe rooms used to protect the materials. “The situation room is a SCIF. There are SCIFs in the military. There are SCIFs in the FBI,” said Illinois representative Mike Quigley. “I can’t explain it – there’s no excuse for that. There is no excuse for mishandling documents.”
Quigley, a Democrat who teaches a course called “Contemporary US Intelligence” at the University of Chicago, says the scandal shows a cavalier attitude in the executive branch that is unacceptable. As Quigley points out, classified information is held securely by government agencies across the United States, well beyond the Beltway. The FBI shares sensitive information with local police departments from coast to coast. Classified documents are also kept in some academic institutions. And Quigley says some documents are shared with the private sector, such as military companies. In short, this appears to be an executive branch issue, and he wants Congress to be optimistic as it seeks to curb the White House’s arbitrary handling of classified materials.
“Of course we have to, because we’re the ones making the laws and allowing people to have classified information,” says Quigley.
The numerous security procedures in the Capitol are designed to keep lawmakers from doing exactly what Biden, Trump and Pence did. It seems to work. “There’s a reason we have a classification,” Warner told reporters at the Capitol. “Maybe we overclass, but if the rules don’t 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 need to fix it.”