When Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, and 25 other Republicans stormed into an impeachment deposition scheduled with a senior Defense Department official in the secure hearing room in the Capitol, it may have seemed like just another stunt made for television.
The members gathered at the base of a spiral staircase, full of indignation, to hold a news conference. Then, followed by cameras, they marched down the hallway to the heavy wooden door of the House Intelligence Committee. In doing so, they brushed past the Capitol Police assigned to protect that space, and past the bank of cabinets designed to hold any electronic devices of those who enter the room.
For them, this stunt was just another attempt to distract from the continuing stream of witnesses testifying to the President’s shameless attempts to extort from Ukraine an investigation into his most-feared rival. However, when they entered the secure room, phones out, recording the scene, these GOP members showed a rash disregard for the security protocols designed to keep America’s secrets safe.
To the casual observer, it may have seemed a small thing that they took their phones inside. But to national security professionals, it was a serious breach. The chamber that they had entered, known as a “Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility,” or SCIF, is designed to allow people to discuss and work on classified information. These rooms are carefully designed and controlled to prevent eavesdropping, electronic surveillance or other signals collection from revealing the nation’s secrets.
Working in any SCIF can be a challenging experience. People who work in these facilities take their security protocols very seriously, because they know the sensitivity of the information they are designed to protect. You sit behind a vault door, often in a room with no windows, surrounded by highly sensitive information that you have an obligation to safeguard. You check your electronic devices outside the room; accidentally bringing them in can trigger a reprimand, an investigation or worse — if the violation is intentional, it could include a loss of clearance or even your job.
The SCIF for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (where I once served as subcommittee staff director) is one of the most sensitive in the nation. There, Congress conducts oversight over the nation’s most sensitive intelligence programs, from electronic surveillance to covert action. The Congressional Intelligence Committees have wide-ranging authority and cover a wider range of materials than all but the most senior levels in the intelligence community. Foreign adversaries are desperate to know what happens in this room.
Further, the members of Congress themselves are highly prized intelligence targets for foreign adversaries. They often meet with officials from other governments, travel internationally and communicate with the most senior executive branch officials, including the president. Many of these members also do not come to their jobs with a background in cybersecurity, and are often confused by technology, so their security practices may not be strong. Compromising the smart phone that sits in the pocket of a member of Congress could yield insights into political strategies, foreign policy or even salacious information that could be used to manipulate or coerce that individual.
Foreign adversaries, like Russian President Vladimir Putin, are also particularly interested in the House’s investigation into President Donald Trump’s alleged attempt to extort an investigation from Ukraine by withholding military aid needed to repel a Russian invasion into their territory. Foreign adversaries surely want to know how House Republicans are reacting to the evidence presented by witnesses, assessing what those witnesses say about how Trump conducts business and what his pressure points are. Taking an easily compromised device into the room to hear the depositions is to cross a perilous line.
While these members do not work in a SCIF every day, most have attended classified briefings before. They clearly saw the guards and the bank of cabinets. They were asked to surrender their devices, and reportedly, some refused to do so. Given their value as targets, the risk of compromise, and the sensitivity of the facility, these GOP members should have gone out of their way to be circumspect. But in their attempt to disrupt testimony from a DOD official on how Trump allegedly endangered national security for both the US and Ukraine by withholding military aid, the President’s allies compounded the danger to national security by storming into the SCIF with their electronic devices.