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Democrats Want More Security Clearances for House Intel Aides

There are too many top-secret documents and not enough staffers, they say

Adam Schiff, shown here at a 2017 news conference on the president’s ties to Russia, says the House Intelligence Committee has a “very small staff” for a very large job. More security clearances could help. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Adam Schiff, shown here at a 2017 news conference on the president’s ties to Russia, says the House Intelligence Committee has a “very small staff” for a very large job. More security clearances could help. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A long-stalled effort to hire more staffers with security clearances to help the House Intelligence Committee will get fresh momentum in the 116th Congress, as Democrats take leadership roles.

California Rep. Adam B. Schiff, who will likely be the next chairman, said he’s looking for ways to provide panel members’ personal staffs with top secret clearances so they can review classified information. Schiff said he will work with U.S. intelligence agencies to determine the best way to meet lawmakers’ needs.

“We have a very small staff to oversee very large agencies and will be looking to expand our capabilities in every way,” Schiff said in an email.

Without having at least one personal staffer with the security clearance to review classified material, lawmakers serving on the House Intelligence Committee are often at the mercy of the panel’s professional staffers, who have clearances but who report only to the committee’s chairman and ranking member, said Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress, a nonprofit group that seeks greater government accountability.

In 2013, when Edward Snowden, a contractor for the National Security Agency, leaked documents on secret surveillance programs and Congress began examining the agency’s work, lawmakers of both parties complained that they were unable to obtain enough information to adequately supervise the agency.

The current push to get Top Secret Sensitive Compartmented Information Security Clearances — also known as TS/SCI clearances, the government’s highest — for personal staff of lawmakers serving on the panel began in March 2016, when a group of eight Democrats, led by California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier, wrote to Georgia Republican Rep. Tom Graves, chairman of the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee.

The Democrats sought, without success, $125,000 to support security clearance reviews for personal staff. The letter-writers argued that each lawmaker serving on the Senate Intelligence Committee is entitled to one personal staff member with the clearance to assist in reviewing top secret information and that members on the House panel needed parity.

Speier, who serves on the committee, intends to fight for the additional funding, an aide to the congresswoman said.

Rep. Mike Quigley, an Illinois Democrat and one of the Intelligence Committee members who signed the letter, will also keep pushing for the funding, said his spokeswoman, Tara Vales.

The U.S. government provides four broad types of security clearances, ranging from the lowest to highest: confidential, secret, top secret and sensitive compartmented information. Each type must be renewed periodically, with the lower-ranked ones valid for longer periods. Individuals are granted the clearances after undergoing extensive background checks and personal interviews.

If Democrats are going to be serious about investigating the Trump administration and probing Russian interference in the 2016 election, “all the members of the House Intelligence Committee need someone to help them,” Schuman said.

Classified documents can be voluminous, and to exercise adequate oversight of U.S. intelligence agencies, members need “someone loyal to them and not just the committee staff,” he said.

Schiff said the idea is appealing and he is exploring it. But in reality, even if personal staff had such top secret clearances, it might not automatically grant them access to information, he said.

“The challenge with our work is that much of it involves highly compartmented information that even some members” of the House Intelligence Committee staff “are not permitted to review, let alone members of our personal staffs, and even with the appropriate clearances,” Schiff said. Some information is reserved only for members, and not their staffs.

U.S. intelligence agencies often place restrictions on how widely information can be disseminated, one committee aide said. So even if each lawmaker on the House Intelligence Committee were to have one personal staffer with clearances, there’s no guarantee that person would have access to all classified information, the aide said.

With Democrats taking power, they will get to double the number of professional committee staffers to 26 from the 13 they were entitled to while they were in the minority.

House Democrats should push for even greater access to classified information by advocating for each member of the 435-member House to have one personal staff member with TS/SCI clearances, Schuman said.

Hundreds of thousands of executive branch employees hold such clearances, as do many contractors who work on sensitive projects, he said.

But there’s no move to provide security clearances to personal aides of each House member.

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