As the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump escalates on Capitol Hill, lawmakers are constantly looking at documents and interviewing key witnesses behind closed doors in a congressional secure room, or “SCIF.”
House Republicans on Wednesday, as a protest, stormed the SCIF where Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Laura Cooper was preparing to testify before the three House committees leading the inquiry. Some lawmakers even appeared to live-tweet from the SCIF once inside. The political stunt caused a five-hour delay of the hearing and angered Democrats. House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi requested House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul D. Irving investigate the “reckless action.”
Here is what we know about the secured space that lawmakers have continuously convened in since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched a formal impeachment inquiry into the President in September.
What is a ‘SCIF’ and how is it created?
A sensitive compartmented information facility is a secured place where sensitive information can be viewed and discussed without the risk of spying. It can be any size or any place, including a closet or an entire building. The most commonly known SCIF is one of the most secured rooms within the White House – The Situation Room. Among the intelligence community, SCIFs are accredited by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and there are standards for determining what rooms are cleared for use as such. SCIFs have reinforced walls and electronic methods to prevent eavesdropping on classified conversations.
A SCIF can be used to interview witnesses. CNN reported earlier this month that lawmakers and counsel for the whistleblower whose complaint sparked the impeachment inquiry were considering off-site SCIFs as possible locations to interview the intelligence official who filed the complaint. Those potential locations included Langley and Fort Meade.
Who can go into a SCIF?
Records are kept regarding who enters the secured room. Authorization and in some cases security clearance are required to enter a SCIF. Intelligence community employees with access to SCIFs receive periodic training on the proper way to safeguard sensitive information, according to Josh Campbell, a CNN analyst and former FBI agent. Regarding the SCIF that Republicans crashed on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, the members who protested were not on any committees leading the investigation and were therefore barred from entering.
What is allowed inside?
No unauthorized cellphones, laptops or any other electronic devices are allowed inside a SCIF. The use of an electronic device inside the secured room could allow one to record what is taking place.
What happens in a SCIF is supposed to stay in the SCIF
Any classified information or documents discussed in a SCIF must remain in the SCIF, unless the information is being transported via a secure bag for storage in another SCIF.
Why is it important?
A secured room is crucial to protecting classified and sensitive information pertaining to US affairs from foreign adversaries. A committee official told CNN that the House Republican members violated House deposition rules by entering the SCIF. They also criticized the Republican members for causing a major security breach by bringing in their electronics.
“Although several members later removed their devices, after being advised by the sergeant-at-arms and security personnel that there were members still in possession of electronic devices, some Republican members refused to completely remove them,” the source said.
“Every intelligence community employee understands their solemn duty to safeguard sensitive information from compromise by foreign adversaries,” Campbell said. “Blatantly disregarding security policies by broadcasting from inside a SCIF represents the precise type of action that could lead to the firing of an intelligence community employee who acted in a similar manner.”
CNN’s Manu Raju and Haley Byrd contributed to this report.