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In wake of Pentagon leak, ‘antiquated’ staff clearance system looks hard to change

Sensitive compartmented information often unavailable to House staff

California Democratic Rep. Sara Jacobs advocates for more clearance for congressional staff.
California Democratic Rep. Sara Jacobs advocates for more clearance for congressional staff. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Despite calls from some lawmakers, staff and policy advocates for more access, the decades-old system that restricts top security clearances for congressional staff isn’t likely to change in the wake of the recent high-profile leak of sensitive Pentagon documents.

Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., said she was shocked to learn of the “antiquated” system and “red tape” surrounding clearances when she came to Congress in 2021. 

The current system prohibits most House office staff from obtaining a high level of clearance, designated by the labels “top secret” and “sensitive compartmented information,” or TS/SCI, that lawmakers like Jacobs say is needed to effectively legislate.

“Each Member of Congress has an entire legislative team supporting them behind the scenes, helping to do research, take meetings with outside groups and experts, and dig into policy,” Jacobs said in an emailed statement. “But when our staff can’t access TS/SCI, especially related to national security, election security, and cyber threats, it hinders our ability to legislate, conduct oversight, and do our jobs to uphold the public interest.”

Since the late 1970s, congressional leaders, in agreement with executive branch officials, limited the number of TS/SCI clearances issued to congressional staffers. One aide in each Senate office is eligible for such clearance, but only some House committee staff and designated staffers in the offices of the speaker and minority leader have access in the House.

Opponents of changes to current congressional rules argue that expanding clearances, especially in the wake of a high-profile breach, could undermine national security.

Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old Massachusetts man who possessed TS/SCI clearance, was arrested April 13 in relation to charges that he posted classified U.S. military and intelligence documents on social media.

House Intelligence Chairman Michael R. Turner, R-Ohio, and ranking member Jim Himes, D-Conn., have promised to investigate the recent leak and review the current security clearance system. But they both expressed skepticism that this was the time to increase clearances.

“We’re probably going to see an overall contraction, rather than an expansion, of access to highly classified material,” Turner said in an interview.

A decades-old deal

The current clearance system for congressional staff emerged in the late 1970s at the tail end of what was a tumultuous era for the U.S. intelligence community.

A series of executive and legislative branch investigations into the CIA and other intelligence agencies unearthed a pattern of questionable practices, like spying on dissidents and meddling in the affairs of sovereign nations without providing any notice to Congress.

It was amid this increased scrutiny in the 1970s that then-CIA Director Stansfield Turner wrote to then-House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr., D-Mass., outlining his concern about the “proliferation of highly sensitive intelligence” and proposing a plan to assess the justification for security clearances in both the executive and legislative branches.

O’Neill was receptive, and he noted in his response that President Jimmy Carter had also recently expressed concern about the number of congressional employees with clearance. The greater the access, the larger the risk, O’Neill said in 1978.

Reporting on total numbers of clearances issued is spotty and sporadic, according to Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress and a proponent of expanding top clearances to House staff. 

A 2020 report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence report found that just under 1.3 million people, whether government or private sector employees, held top secret clearances.

Because of the precedent set by the informal agreement between O’Neill and Turner, the Office of House Security, which is responsible for clearances and classified materials, has effectively stopped processing new, or transferring existing, TS/SCI clearances for House office staff, according to Jacobs. 

Intelligence Committee Democrats in 2016 called for allowing one person in the office of each committee member to obtain the clearance. Other attempts in 2018, after Democrats took back the House, and in 2019, ahead of the first impeachment of President Donald Trump, were unsuccessful.

“This has left the majority of House Members without the resources necessary to engage with information classified at the TS/SCI level,” Jacobs wrote in March testimony to the House Administration Committee.

The decades-long pause on new clearances for House staff is compounded by a trend to over-classify documents, which both Senate Intelligence Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., and Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Gary Peters, D-Mich., have identified as a problem in recent weeks.

More than 50 million documents are classified by the U.S. government every year, and experts say that somewhere between 50 percent and 90 percent of classified documents could be made public without compromising national security, Peters said at a March 23 hearing.

“Everything that used to be secret has become top secret. Everything that was top secret has become TS/SCI,” Schuman said. “So there’s been this whole trend over the last 30 years in up-classification.”

How it could happen

The process to change the existing system could be relatively easy, Schuman said. Amending the rules in the House Security Manual could be as simple as the speaker sending a letter ordering the change, or tacking it on to an appropriations bill that would direct the Office of House Security to do it. 

Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., did not respond to a request for comment.

The Senate successfully changed its rules in 2021 to make one aide per office eligible. It was an important step toward modernizing Congress, which deals regularly with issues relating to space, cybersecurity and cyberwarfare, all of which are likely to come with highly classified documents, according to a Senate aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The agreement from the 1970s “just hasn’t been updated in so long that it’s just irrelevant to the kind of modern times we live in,” the aide said.

But the House has more members with shorter terms, which makes it riskier.

“I would not dismiss the idea,” Himes said. “But I think we’re in a mode where we want to actually start thinking about paring down the number of people with access to classified information.”

The issue has garnered a flurry of attention in both chambers. In addition to Warner and Peters in the Senate, Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., vowed this month to address systemic issues and take “corrective steps.”

And even before the leak, Turner and Himes had sought to review the clearance system. They’ll look at the time it takes to obtain clearances — years, in some cases — consider standardizing the process across intelligence agencies and modernize screening to check applicants’ social media accounts, Turner said.

Expanding the current system was not on Turner’s list of top priorities, even if he didn’t exactly close the door.

“Compartmented access really should be on the basis of a need to serve a member who has a national security portfolio,” Turner said.

According to Schuman, obtaining a TS/SCI clearance does not mean individuals automatically have access to all the information, as they must demonstrate a “need to know” for a particular item or category of information.

“Members vote on classified stuff all the time, including highly classified stuff,” Schuman said. “So really, every member has a need to be able to access materials.”

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