Congress

Republicans breeze past security protocols, occupy secure impeachment area

Cell phones in secure spaces and committee sit-in raises House Ethics questions

Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., at podium, speaks during a news conference outside the Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense, deposition related to the House’s impeachment inquiry on Wednesday, October 23, 2019. The Republican members were calling for access to the deposition. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Defying established security protocols, a cadre of House Republicans led by Minority Whip Steve Scalise and Rep. Matt Gaetz stormed the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) in the Capitol Visitor Center on Wednesday, where the top Pentagon official overseeing U.S. policy in Ukraine was giving her deposition for the House’s impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

Hours into a standoff between frustrated Republicans and Democrats leading the impeachment inquiry, a handful of GOP members remained sitting in the SCIF, refusing to leave.

Rep. Michael Waltz told reporters that when he and other Republican members entered the room to hear testimony from Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, Schiff stood up and walked out, accompanied by the witness.

[Impeachment news roundup: Oct. 23]

“What is Adam Schiff trying to hide?” Scalise said as Republicans tried to enter the secure area. “They don’t even let the president’s legal counsel question people who are making baseless allegations. Maybe in the Soviet Union this kind of thing is commonplace. This shouldn’t be happening in the United States of America, where they’re trying to impeach a president in secret behind closed doors.”

Intelligence member Val Demings said Republicans “are under a lot of stress” because of what she said is clear wrongdoing by the president.

“I guess when you’re desperate you go back to complaining about the process and that’s what they’re doing,” the Florida Democrat said.

This is not the first time Republican members have “stormed the SCIF” to make a statement about what they view as a lack of transparency from House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff and how the investigation is operating.

Rep. Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the Oversight panel, has been among the loudest voices calling for greater access to information about the impeachment inquiry in recent weeks. 

“It’s gotten so petty from the Democrats, yesterday they even took the chairs out, took the benches out, where our staff sits, outside of the area. Removed those so staff can’t even be there and have a place to sit,” said Jordan.

He said that the frustration among Republicans has “finally reached a boiling point,” and said that the situation has reached a “standstill.”

Republicans have attacked the closed-door impeachment depositions for weeks, calling for transcripts to be released to all members of Congress and the American public. Republican members who requested to read the transcripts of testimony in the impeachment inquiry have been denied access because they were not on the committees of jurisdiction.

On Tuesday House Intelligence member Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., told reporters that there are limitations to impeachment inquiry transcripts for committee members that she calls “unprecedented.”

She said that Intelligence members were notified this week that the panels would only print one copy of a transcript, for every member of Congress to view.

“And you would have to read it with a member of Democratic staff, that is unprecedented and unfair,” she said.

“Americans should know that their member of Congress has had no access to any of the transcripts,” said Stefanik.

Schiff, his staff and House Intelligence Committee Democrats have not confirmed this policy or responded to request for comment.

Cell phone security breach 

As the Republicans stormed the secure area, several brought their cell phones with them into the secure area, according to Democratic Reps. Ted Lieu and Harley Rouda of California.

Cell phones, which the Director of National Intelligence considers “high-vulnerability” devices, must undergo a rigorous risk-mitigation protocol to be allowed into a SCIF. They are specifically designed to thwart attempts at electronic eavesdropping, if protocols are followed. 

 Jordan acknowledged that the cell phone mishap by his colleagues crossed a boundary that should remain in place.

“They shouldn’t do that. They’re not used to this. They walked in, as soon as they were told that, they set their phones out,” Jordan said when asked about his GOP colleagues bringing their phones into the SCIF.

“It was a mistake, No big deal. They shouldn’t do that. They understand now and it won’t happen again,” he continued.

Republicans said Schiff was threatening GOP lawmakers with ethics violations related to the stunt. Schiff was also consulting with the House’s sergeant at arms and multiple members confirmed that House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul D. Irving was present.

“They violated House rules by trying to crash committees of which they don’t sit on,” said Lieu.

He said that the House Parliamentarian had been consulted, once again, on the issue of barring members not on the committees of jurisdiction from the proceedings.

“The House Parliamentarian has  ruled that you just can’t crash committees,” Lieu said.

Democrats who were present for the Republicans’ efforts to enter and participate in the deposition said that it is up to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Schiff whether or not to pursue a complaint in the House Ethics Committee for any potential violations of House Rules.

Spying fears

"Foreign adversaries really, really want to know what's happening in this type of room," Mieke Eoyang, a former Democratic Intelligence Committee aide who worked on cyber issues told CQ Roll Call.

"That they rushed past the security protocols shows a disregard for both the threat that they're under [as targets of foreign intelligence operatives] and the risk to the facility," Eoyang said.

In most facilities where lawmakers discuss classified information, there is usually a series of small cubbies outside the room for participants to store their devices. In some cases, it's a communal basket.

"That can lead to some confusion on the back end, when everyone's phone looks the same," Eoyang said.

Eoyang questioned House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's and Jordan's comments defending the GOP lawmakers on grounds that they don't regularly attend classified briefings and thus don't aren't familiar with security particulars.

"Members who have been around awhile have been to classified briefings before," Eoyang said. "They know the protocol."

Lindsey McPherson, Niels  Lesniewski and Griffin Connolly contributed to this report.

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