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Why the White House Situation Room could provide clues in classified ‘documents-gate’

'You just can't have documents leaving rooms,' Senate Intel member says

The White House Situation Room.
The White House Situation Room. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The White House Situation Room is among the most famous and secure rooms on the planet. It might hold some important clues about what some call “documents-gate.”

The drip, drip, drip of classified documents from the White House to the offices and homes of two former vice presidents, Joe Biden and Mike Pence, and the tidal wave of sensitive materials to former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort has shaken Washington.

But no one seems to know just how a decades-old classified documents storage and tracking system failed — on multiple occasions during at least two administrations that spanned a dozen years.

Senators from both parties who routinely have access to sensitive government materials inside Capitol Hill rooms known as sensitive compartmented information facilities, or SCIFs, shrugged over the last few weeks when asked what lawmakers might do to stop the White House leakage.

“I don’t think I’m at a point, nor is the Senate at a point, of next steps,” said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., a Senate Intelligence Committee member.

Some key lawmakers are getting frustrated, saying they don’t know where to start when looking into what went wrong. That includes the heads of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., and Vice Chairman Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

“Our job is not to figure out if somebody mishandled those [materials], but our job is to make sure there’s not an intelligence compromise,” Warner told CBS News on Jan. 29. “And while the director of national intelligence had been willing to brief us earlier, now that you’ve got the special counsel, the notion that we’re going to be left in limbo and we can’t do our job, that just cannot stand.”

Later in the interview, the duo made clear they are in no mood to be stonewalled.

“The notion of, we’re not going to give the … committee the ability to do its job until the special prosecutor somehow says it’s OK doesn’t hold water,” Warner said. “We have a right, as not only members of the Intelligence Committee, but as part of the leadership, to read virtually every classified document.”

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has sat on a few national security committees during his time in Congress, was one of the few lawmakers to lay out a possible path for patching the executive branch’s cracked classified materials system.

“Let’s find out what happened. Let’s find out what kind of documents we’re talking about. Then let’s allow the investigations to go forward,” the former Judiciary Committee chairman said. “Then let’s get some kind of working group together with the Congress and the administration to create rules for the road.”

Any such revised rules could be far-reaching to include the entire national security apparatus.

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., said something in a brief interview last week that got this columnist thinking: “But, clearly, there’s a problem at the White House and the problem has existed for a long time.”

But is that the whole picture?

Agencies routinely prepare classified and sensitive materials for presidents and vice presidents, including the President’s Daily Brief and other materials about a whole range of issues, because, as Graham said at a Jan. 28 campaign event alongside Trump, “the world is a dangerous place.”

What about those agencies? Haven’t they some blame in “documents-gate” for failing to keep track of some of the classified materials that ended up in unsecure storage rooms, garages and offices far from the White House complex?

“When the CIA briefer delivers the PDB each morning to the Oval Office or wherever the president is, the National Security Adviser’s office is responsible for retrieving it at the end of the day and securing it in their SCIF in the West Wing or in the Situation Room,” Bruce Riedel, a three-decade veteran of the CIA, wrote for The Brookings Institution.

“If the president or VP write a question or comment in the book it goes back to Langley for a response,” he added, referring to the CIA’s home in Virginia. “In my experience, the president did not keep classified material. If he wanted to have it available then the Situation Room held onto it.”

In an email, Riedel explained that the process is similar for vice presidents: “The Vice President would also use the Situation Room and its staff to keep classified material. The VP has his/her own national security adviser with a small staff. Like the NSC staff, they get their classified material electronically from the Sit Room and White House communications.”

On Capitol Hill, the frustration is palpable, and there is rare bipartisan agreement about the problem.

“I’m certain of this: There have to be changes made in the executive branch,” Casey said. “When you see this over multiple administrations, I think it’s plainly evident … that you just can’t have documents leaving rooms.”

‘Appropriately paranoid’

Problems in Washington typically present opportunities — even if lawmakers of both parties rarely capitalize on them.

Such is the case for Warner and Rubio. Their frustrations come weeks after Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington wrote that “Congress must take steps in the new session to increase oversight.”

The watchdog group wants both chambers to pursue “an enforceable agenda focused on conducting meaningful oversight aimed at addressing corruption” and “increasing transparency.”

CREW’s president, Noah Bookbinder, has pleaded directly to all four top congressional leaders, warning in a Jan. 18 letter that “Congress’s ability to conduct effective oversight has deteriorated.”

“Congress spends more time hearing one-sided opinions on issues, and less time learning about potential solutions to legislative problems and potential executive branch abuses,” Bookbinder wrote. “Oversight hearings often fail to establish basic facts needed to highlight abuses of power or other misconduct.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee is perhaps Capitol Hill’s last remaining panel that truly is bipartisan. That means Warner and Rubio have an opportunity to set a new standard for oversight, to begin rebuilding Congress’ atrophied oversight muscles.

To begin understanding the crux of the “problem” that Murphy diagnosed as plaguing the handling of sensitive material “for a long time,” Warner and Rubio might want to focus on the ultimate SCIF.

Calling in Situation Room directors from the Trump and Obama administrations seems like a solid start. That’s largely because when asked if the intelligence and national security agencies that create classified materials for the president and vice president should get any blame, Riedel, the CIA veteran, responded: “I don’t think so. Once they (agencies) disseminate the material, it is the recipient’s obligation to ensure their proper storage.”

In too many cases, however, sensitive materials were improperly stored far away from the secure space under the West Wing.

Then again, perhaps all senior White House officials and aides need is a new perspective.

Standing one floor above a Capitol Visitor Center SCIF on Wednesday, Casey echoed other senators by noting there has been no mishandling of classified documents by lawmakers. Why?

“I mean, there’s no statute, necessarily, that says you can’t walk out of the room with something. We just have a practice that’s been drilled into our heads for generations,” he said after this columnist noted never seeing a senator leave the SCIF with a trail of sensitive papers fluttering in their wake. “We’re appropriately paranoid.”

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which first appeared in the subscription-based CQ Afternoon Briefing newsletter.

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