EIGHT MEMBERS OF the House oversight panel for intelligence are asking for the funds to get top-secret clearances for personal staffers.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, gathered up seven of her colleagues to ask that $125,000 be allotted to the Sergeant at Arms to facilitate the process, to be included in the fiscal 2017 Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill, which funds Congress.
“This request will support members as they review complicated and urgent obstacles our intelligence community must grapple with,” they wrote, in a letter addressed to Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla.
The House and Senate intelligence oversight panels both serve as watchdogs for the government’s intelligence community. Senate members get to have a staffer of their choice apply and obtain a high-level security clearance to help with research and hearings, but that’s not the case for the House. Currently, members of the House intelligence committee rely on staffers hired by the chair and ranking member of the committee — not someone in their own office.
Not having staff members to lean on when it comes to reviewing classified information “places an onerous burden on individual members … and is a major oversight considering their counterparts on the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence are afforded SCI (Sensitive Compartmented Information) clearance investigations for personal office designees,” they continued.
The signatories asked for “equal footing.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, though not a signatory to the letter, told The Intercept he supports the members’ request. “The intelligence committees have a challenging and vital task in overseeing our nation’s intelligence activities, and I am always interested in finding ways we can do our job more effectively.”
“One of the challenges the House intelligence committee confronts is that despite a highly skilled and diligent professional staff, our resources are limited when compared to the scope of the intelligence community and its activities,” he wrote in a statement. “One potential way to help alleviate that imbalance could be to increase the size of the professional staff by including staff designees — the approach employed by the Senate Intelligence Committee.”
“It’s a surprising discrepancy that ought to be corrected,” wrote Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy, in an email to The Intercept. The practice diminishes lawmakers’ “independence and autonomy as full-fledged members of the intelligence committee.”
And, he says, it forces them to hire almost exclusively former intelligence agency employees in order to take advantage of existing clearances.
A bipartisan group of 16 activist organizations led by Demand Progress sent its own letter in support of Rep. Speier and the members and staffers making the request last week.
“Some may fret that providing 20-odd congressional staffers high clearance may pose security problems, but considering more than 660,000 executive branch employees have top-secret clearance and more than 500,000 contractors have top-secret clearance, I suspect the real danger comes from a lack of oversight, not an empowered Congress,” wrote Daniel Schuman, policy director for Demand Progress and a former legislative attorney for the Congressional Research Service, in a blog post linking to the letter.
“So many of the government surveillance programs uncovered by Snowden and other whistleblowers have been shrouded in secrecy, their details kept from the public, the press, and even the members of Congress tasked with overseeing intelligence agencies,” pointed out Sandra Fulton, government relations manager for the independent media and digital rights group Free Press, another signatory, in an email to The Intercept.
“Ensuring that members have staff who can access the details of these invasive programs is a small but important step in Congress reclaiming its role as the public’s check on government surveillance.”