Politics & Policy

The Republican SCIF Invasion and the Law

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (center) with other Republican congressmen outside the SCIF where Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper testified on Capitol Hill, October 23, 2019 (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
Bringing your phone into a secure facility is a violation, but not necessarily a major one.

Today’s Republican excursion into protest theater in the Capitol, wherein a large number of GOP members rushed the Intelligence Committee’s Secure Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) without first putting away their cell phones, has generated an . . . interesting response among left-wing Twitter.

Among the more histrionic responses came from self-described “Multimedia Journalist” David Leavitt, who issued this demanded: “Every @GOP member who invaded the SCIF should be taken into custody by the Capitol Police & questioned by the FBI to determine if they’re serving a foreign intelligence service. They should also be removed from the House until the investigation is completed & votes out of office.”

Well. Having spent the better part of 20 years working in SCIFs every day myself, I have some experience with these matters. Let’s take a moment to unpack this a bit before calling in the marshal of the Supreme Court.

I’ll leave weighing the wisdom and/or stupidity of the SCIF-storming stunt itself to others and limit myself to the issue of taking “electronic devices” (almost certainly meaning regular smartphones) into a secured area.

The short version: You’re not supposed to do that. Here’s why.

A SCIF is a specially built area designed to keep secrets from getting out. Depending on the level of classification the SCIF is certified for, there are multiple layers of physical and information security built into the room itself.

Those can include noise attenuation to prevent conversations from being overheard, electronic protection to keep signals from being transmitted beyond the interior of the SCIF, heavy-duty safes and vault doors to prevent unauthorized eyes from seeing classified documents, and heavily controlled and monitored computers, secure phones, and their associated encryption devices to protect the data on information systems.

But as the examples of Chelsea (née Bradley) Manning, Edward Snowden, Sandy Berger, Hillary Clinton, and others have taught us, the best protection in the world can’t stop somebody who has access to a secure area from taking out classified information if they want to badly enough.

One of the ways you could do that would be to walk in with a cell phone and start taking pictures of classified documents. If you were really intent on espionage, you could also use that phone to covertly record conversations or capture electronic signals from the computers inside the SCIF.

You could also unwittingly store and/or transmit classified information on your phone if it had been compromised by an external agent — and one must guess that members of Congress are among the top targets of such attacks by foreign intelligence agencies.

So that’s why it’s universally verboten to carry your cell phone into a SCIF. There are a few exceptions, mostly for high-ranking leadership personnel who’ve been issued secure personal communication devices, but those are pretty few and far between, and I feel safe in guessing that none of the congressmen involved today were carrying anything like that.

But the thing is, almost every working adult in America carries around a cell phone these days, and human beings can be absent-minded. In practical terms, that means cell phones get carried into SCIFs, almost always by accident, literally on a daily basis.

And when that happens, the individual with the phone is expected to self-report the violation. The illicit iPhone will get written up as a security incident, and in most cases, that’s that.

I’m sorry to disappoint Leftie Twitter, but the “perpetrator” is not then frog-marched out of the building and shipped directly to Guantanamo Bay for waterboarding.

A first offense will result in a verbal scolding and an admonishment to go forth and sin no more. A second is cause for a written reprimand, and a third can very likely get one’s security clearance revoked.

A contractor would probably lose his job following such a revocation. I’ve never heard of a civil servant being fired over minor security violations, but I suppose if enough of them piled up, it would be conceivable.

But unless there’s some reason to suspect espionage — and a third offense probably would trigger a more in-depth investigation — that’s as far as it goes.

What would get you in far more serious trouble would be covertly copying classified information from a SCIF and then retransmitting that information over insecure channels on unapproved systems. Doing that even once would be reason to revoke a clearance. Doing it two or three times would absolutely trigger a counter-espionage investigation.

Doing it nearly 600 times, well, that will get you a verbal scolding . . . if you’re a Clinton. For anybody else, six would be more than enough to end your career, and 60 would almost certainly put you behind bars.

 

Will Collier is an aerospace engineer and a writer. He lives in metro Atlanta.

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