The White House handles a flood of classified information, and the executive branch zealously guards its prerogatives on what it classifies and declassifies and what it allows Congress to see. While the Biden administration is likely to push back on attempts to impose new rules, Congress has broad oversight over the intelligence community and controls its funding and confirmation of high-ranking nominees, giving lawmakers considerable leverage.
To illustrate the steps that members of Congress take to protect secret information, several members of the intelligence panels outlined the procedures they operate under. Committee members typically handle or hear classified information in secure rooms in the Capitol — one on the House side, one on the Senate and another in the Hart Senate Office Building.
Upon arriving in an anteroom, they are signed in by staff, directed to lock up all electronics and allowed into the SCIF. Once inside, they are permitted to review documents and take notes, but their notes are locked away and cannot be removed from the facility. Lawmakers said they were other safeguards in place that they would not discuss.
“The rule is very, very clear, and you have to scrupulously adhere to it,” said Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and another longtime intelligence panel member. “You cannot take anything from the room.”
Upon leaving, lawmakers are again reminded not to take any classified material.
“After the hearing or briefing is over, the documents are reclaimed before you leave the SCIF,” Ms. Collins said. “Nevertheless when you got out, you are asked if you have any classified documents with you and your name and the time that you leave is noted.”
“I wonder if the executive branch, ironically which is producing these documents, has far looser standards,” she added.
On the occasions when a lawmaker needs to see a document but cannot go to a secure room, the material is brought to their office in a locked pouch by an authorized staff member. In the presence of the lawmaker, the pouch is unlocked, the document handed over for review, then returned to the pouch and locked back up. There can be no discussion of the contents.