Mishandling of Classified Information Has Congress Asking Questions

WASHINGTON — Roy Blunt, a longtime member of the intelligence committees in the Senate and House before retiring this year, said he was always extremely careful and under close supervision when handling classified material.

“I even took off my Fitbit,” said Mr. Blunt, a Missouri Republican, about the level of precautions he and fellow committee members took to protect the secrecy of the documents they usually only reviewed in a sensitive compartmented information facility (known as a “SCIF”) in the Capitol complex with no electronics allowed.

Based on their own experiences, many lawmakers said they were astounded and dismayed by the discovery of caches of unsecured classified documents scattered at former President Donald J. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida, stored in President Biden’s garage in Delaware and held in former Vice President Mike Pence’s residence back home in Indiana.

Given the tight controls placed on their handling of such items, they said they found it inconceivable that leaders of the executive branch could be so sloppy. As a result, lawmakers are already talking about new penalties for mishandling sensitive information.

“There is no excuse for it,” said Representative Mike Quigley, Democrat of Illinois, who has been a member of the House Intelligence Committee for eight years. “There is no excuse for mishandling documents ever. By anybody.”

Mr. Quigley and Representative Darin LaHood, an Illinois Republican who also sits on the intelligence panel, said on Thursday that they intend to introduce legislation that would impose new sanctions for lax control over classified information through carelessness or other behavior that did not rise to the level of criminality. The punishment could include fines, revocation of security clearances and other options. Their effort is not likely to be the only one.

“People are really upset,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine and a member of the upper chamber’s Intelligence Committee. “Something is terribly amiss. The idea that someone can just inadvertently take classified documents is pretty far-fetched.”

Understand the Biden Documents Case

The discovery of classified documents from President Biden’s time as vice president has prompted a Justice Department investigation.

  • In Washington: Attorney General Merrick B. Garland’s appointment of a special counsel to investigate the situation drew a mixed reception from Republicans, who had hoped to spearhead the effort themselves.
  • Biden’s Miscalculations: How has Mr. Biden handled the document discoveries, and why was the public in the dark for so long? Michael D. Shear, a White House correspondent for The Times, joined “The Daily” to discuss the ordeal.
  • Implications for Trump Case: Despite the differences between them, the cases involving the president and his predecessor are similar enough that investigators may have a harder time prosecuting Mr. Trump criminally.
  • Democrats’ Reaction: Mr. Biden is facing blowback from some members of his own party, as his allies express growing concern that the case could get in the way of the Democrats’ momentum coming out of the midterms.

The sense of outrage on Capitol Hill has only intensified since the Biden administration said it would not disclose to the intelligence panels the contents of the found materials while special counsel inquiries continue.

Senator Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat who is chairman of the Senate panel, said he intends to challenge that position. Members of both parties say the administration’s stance is preventing them from conducting oversight on the national security risks of the cavalier treatment of classified information.

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.

“The only time that document is out of the pouch is while the member is reading it,” Mr. Blunt said. “It is understood even with a trusted employee who works for you on the Intelligence Committee that you don’t discuss it in that setting. That is the level of protection that classified documents have in the Senate and the Congress.”

Considering the longstanding security practices, senators said that it was inexplicable to them how classified documents from Mr. Biden’s Senate years were found in his possession, though Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, said he did not believe there had been any criminal wrongdoing.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Mr. Durbin told reporters this week. “I will tell you they’re not very careful in handling classified documents when I think of how we deal with them in the Capitol in comparison. Whoever was responsible for it didn’t follow the basics.”

Other lawmakers said that at minimum, the executive branch should be following the same principles that Congress does.

“It may be as simple as just a better system for housekeeping to know that if a document goes in, it goes back at the appropriate time to the agency that it came from,” said Senator Martin Heinrich, Democrat of New Mexico and an intelligence panel member. “There’s a pretty good system here: You go into the SCIF, and you view information in that location and you don’t take it out. So I think we need to make sure we have the same sort of hygiene wherever these briefings are taking place.”

While many members of Congress are known for a willingness to divulge all manner of private discussions, high-stakes decisions and even gossip, leaks of classified information traceable to Capitol Hill are rare, since lawmakers know they can face a criminal inquiry as well as political consequences.

“I think members of Congress are really cautious about it,” Mr. Blunt said. “They know it is a crime. They know there is a specific, limited number of people that information is available to and they are extremely careful about it.”

Now lawmakers say they want to make sure that others in the government are as careful as they try to be.

“Any individual who handles classified material or documents is made aware of the safeguards, responsibility, and importance of protecting highly sensitive information, whether it’s high-ranking government officials, Intelligence Committee members, or military officers,” Mr. LaHood said in a statement. “As a former state and federal prosecutor, I believe it has become clear that there must be review, reform and clearer penalties for individuals who mishandle classified information.”

Karoun Demirjian contributed reporting.

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