The executive branch’s classification access policies captured headlines after a 21-year-old Air National Guardsman accessed highly classified documents that had nothing to do with his duties and removed them from a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (“SCIF”). While this episode demonstrates the extraordinary access low-ranking executive branch staffers have to sensitive material, a polar opposite problem plagues those in Congress tasked with overseeing the executive branch’s defense and foreign relations programs: members and staffers in key defense and foreign policy roles do not have adequate access to the information that they need to do their jobs. The factors driving this lack of access are multifaceted and complex, involving intergovernmental politics, statutory reporting requirements, and congressional rules and “turf battles.” However, a significant problem within Congress is the inability to access the infrastructure that is necessary to review classified material. As Congress works to reassert its authority over United States war making, it should improve its infrastructure and policies for handling sensitive information.
Congress’s Classification Infrastructure
Currently, the Senate has several SCIFs for some of the relevant committees with jurisdiction over different facets of the United States’ war powers: one for the Select Committee on Intelligence, one for the Armed Services Committee, and one for the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. In addition, the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs has its own SCIF. Notably missing from this group is the Committee on Foreign Relations (SFRC), which is charged with originating authorizations for the use of force, among other subject areas that clearly require regular access to classified material. Instead, SFRC is relegated to using an “all purpose” SCIF located in the Capitol Building that is utilized by all other Senators, cleared personal office staffers, and other committees and subcommittees that have access to classified material (known as the “Senate Security SCIF”). As a result, SFRC effectively shares one terminal with the rest of the Senate. This is all compounded by the fact that the Senate SCIF in the Capitol Building can only be accessed during standard work hours. The House does better and has a SCIF for each committee that has oversight jurisdiction over the United States’ war making ability.
Both the House and Senate use a system known as CAPNET for classified material access. It frequently takes members and cleared staff months to obtain an account. Even after they gain an account, the system does not provide many tools essential to effective oversight. For example, there is no system to notify members or their staff when the executive branch produces relevant classified material, a problem compounded by the fact that the executive branch often fails to proactively send updates via unclassified email. Contrast this to the executive branch, where officers and cleared civil servants are often on the classified network within days of onboarding and generally have much better access to the classified information necessary to do their jobs.
Members of Congress also lack adequate access to phones that are approved for secure conversations, classified meeting rooms, or Secure Video Teleconference (SVTC) facilities. This exacerbates the difficulties Senators and staff have in setting up classified briefings, communicating with executive branch personnel—and each other—about critical national security issues, and securing access to classified information in a timely manner.
The inadequate classification infrastructure is more than a mere inconvenience; it makes it difficult, if not impossible, for Congress to exercise adequate oversight of the United States’ defense and foreign policy programs. These issues are particularly pervasive with respect to the SFRC. SFRC’s oversight responsibilities include jurisdiction over foreign military interventions, war declarations, foreign military assistance, and other sensitive national security matters. While Congress works to reassert its authority over the United States’ war powers, one of the most integral committees is left out in the cold by the Senate’s lack of adequate infrastructure. This deficiency is indicative of a larger issue across the United States government, which underfunds the foreign service and over-relies on military force to solve complex international issues.
The Constitution and the War Powers Resolution both require that Congress play a central role in making decisions about how to deploy military force abroad. But Congress cannot do that if its members and their staff do not know the essential information about the threats the United States faces and the capabilities it can deploy to address those threats. Given current constraints, Congress not only cannot receive all the information it needs, but members and their staff cannot engage in exchanges with the key executive branch officials that could help ensure that the decisions being made reflect the values and interests of the United States. The infrastructure-related aspects of these problems are not inevitable. If Congress wishes to reassert its war making authority and end endless war, it can and should update this infrastructure.
How to Fix the Problem
Congress can remove the infrastructural barriers by implementing several key reforms. First, the Senate should construct a dedicated SCIF for SFRC. This would allow Senators on the Committee and their cleared staff to access important classified information and would eliminate the barrier posed by the inaccessibility of the Senate Security SCIF. The modest cost to construct and operate a SCIF is justified by the improved oversight it would allow.
Second, Congress should ensure that every SCIF, both legacy and newly constructed, has a sufficient number of secure spaces with computer terminals and phones. Congress should also significantly expand access to SVTC facilities. Expanding these facilities would make it far easier for members and staff to schedule calls and hold classified briefings with executive branch officials—events that are currently challenging to schedule in person or in the limited secure teleconference facilities currently available to members and their staff.
Third, Congress should insist on changes to the electronic systems for accessing classified information so that they are more effective and less time-consuming. The process to obtain a CAPNET account should be expedited, and there should be a system for providing effective notice to members and their staff when relevant classified material is available for them to review. In addition, members and cleared staff who need to access classified information should be given classified email accounts that can communicate, at a minimum, with other members and staff in Congress working on the same programs.
The recent Department of Defense leak is likely at top of mind, and proposals to enhance access to classified information within Congress may seem untimely. However, it should be noted that the number of congressional staff with Top Secret security clearance are a very small portion of the more than one-million people with such access. Moreover, concerns about congressional leaks of classified material are disproportionate to the actual likelihood. While there have been examples of congressional leaks, including inadvertent leaks, these pale in comparison to the leaks from the executive branch. Indeed, all of the recent high-profile leaks of classified material have come from the executive branch.
Constraints on access to classified information needlessly hamper Congress in its ability to exercise effective oversight of the United States’ defense and foreign policy activities. These proposed reforms are all politically achievable – they are non-partisan, cost-justified, and effective. Congress should help its members and staff do their critically important oversight jobs by implementing these reforms.