Ethics Committee Reminds Lawmakers About Secure Area Protocols After GOP Members Storm Hearing

By Janita Kan
Janita Kan
Janita Kan
Janita Kan is a reporter based in New York covering the Justice Department, courts, and First Amendment.
November 16, 2019 Updated: November 16, 2019

The House Ethics Committee sent a memo to lawmakers and their staff reminding them about etiquette and protocols when accessing secure areas weeks after more than two dozen GOP members stormed a closed-door impeachment inquiry hearing.

The memo (pdf) from Ethics Committee Chairman Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) and Ranking Member Kenny Marchant (R-Texas) reminded lawmakers that access to classified information and secure areas are granted on a “need to know” basis, adding that “House personnel should not attempt to gain access to classified information or controlled areas unless they have a need to access the area or information.”

Moreover, the memo, dated Nov. 14, said breaches of such protocols could lead to decertification of the secure facilities which would “significantly impair the House’s ability to conduct its business.”

“Inadvertent breaches of security protocols or unauthorized disclosures may be handled as a matter of security by the committees of jurisdiction over the relevant classified information or controlled areas. However, attempts to gain unauthorized access to classified areas or purposeful breaches of basic security protocols may cause classified information to be improperly disclosed, and may reflect discreditably on the House as a legislative body,” the memo said.

Over 30 Republican lawmakers entered a House Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) on Oct. 23 in an attempt to gain access to the closed-door testimony into the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump. The move was viewed as a protest by Republican members over the lack of due process and transparency during the early stages of the probe into the president, led by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who led the group, and the others argued that lawmakers, not just members of the three House committees overseeing the inquiry, should be able to attend the closed-door hearings.

“He doesn’t have the guts to come talk to us,” Rep. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) said of Schiff. “He left, he just got up and left. He doesn’t have the guts to tell us why we can’t come in the room, why he doesn’t want this to be transparent. It’s the biggest facade, biggest farce of my life.”

The Republican members were criticized for the move and for bringing in electronic devices into the secure area, which was prohibited by House rules.

The Nov. 14 memo also warned about bringing electronic devices into the secured area, saying that “multiple overlapping safeguards exist to protect against different types of intrusion.”

“However, the protections rely on the cooperation of those entering the SCIF to ensure countermeasures are not compromised. Thus, portable electronic devices should generally not be taken into any controlled area. PEDs include, but are not limited to, cellphones, laptops, smartwatches, tablets, or any other devices capable of transmitting or receiving an electronic signal,” the memo stated.

The incident caused a five-hour delay in the testimony of Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian affairs, who was scheduled to depose on the day. The Republicans were subsequently threatened with ethics violations and their actions prompted Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) to write a letter (pdf) to House Sergeant at Arms Irving about his concerns over “the dangers of such reckless action and the potential national security risks of such behavior.”

Jack Phillips contributed to this report.