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I used to work in a secure facility and here's the ugly truth about how Congress handles classified documents

I was shocked when I first came to Congress by the high-level security clearance I was given without so much as a basic briefing or training

Originally published in Fox News
Written by Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA)

When I served in the military just before the close of the Cold War, my job was primarily in a "SCIF" – a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. This is a space designed to keep classified information out of the hands of people who wish to do the United States harm. It is literally a vault that is secured and monitored for who and what comes in, and perhaps even more importantly, who and what comes out. This level of compartmented information is even withheld from those with the highest levels of clearance without a "need to know." 

The SCIF I worked in required a "TS/SCI" clearance, allowing my colleagues and me to work with the Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information required to do our jobs. The process for people to obtain this clearance or level of trust is incredibly invasive and often takes over a year.

We would walk into the vault every day for work with nothing in our hands. No briefcases, work materials, newspapers, technology, etc. were allowed. And if something happened to pass through, standard operating procedure was that it was forever stuck there -- in SCIF purgatory -- presumably never to re-emerge.

Interestingly, one can often read information in the press or in "Open Source" material that is actually classified at some of our government’s highest levels. Those of us who were trained and therefore trusted knew to never speak of this information in unsecured places, even if it was publicly available. It was classified for a reason.

At one point, one of my officemates deliberately brought in an article he read in (of all things) a Rolling Stone magazine expose. Embedded within the reporter’s story was a sentence that was protected at the TS/SCI level. My colleague highlighted the sentence with "!!!"

I tell you all of this, by way of background, to set the stage for what I arrived into when I was first elected to Congress and came to Washington four years ago.

Upon arriving, I simply had to sign a card that instantly granted me clearance at similar levels to what I had worked so hard to earn decades before. No briefings or training, no nothing.

Apparently, just by virtue of the fact that I have been elected, I am deemed trustworthy and capable of managing this sensitive information.

I sit regularly in classified briefings, where my colleagues will leave after the briefing, walk out to a gaggle of press, and share the very information that has just been conveyed in the briefing. I assume they think that’s alright because it can largely be found in The New York Times.

I share this because we all have been exposed to the recent news cycle where we have discovered that presidents and vice presidents of more than one administration are in possession of classified information found in their personal residences and in other unsecured spaces.

I understand that these leaders, and we in Congress, are extremely dutiful, busy people and are undoubtedly working in multiple places with our respective work materials. However, our busy schedules and good intentions don't negate our obligation to protect classified information and its sources with the respect and true weight of power it holds.

Members of the executive branch and of the legislative branch are not bad people -- in fact just the opposite. And we are (largely) extremely trustworthy. But the way in which we all access and manage classified information needs to be reformed quickly, both through legislative action and cultural and administrative change. Our hard work, patriotism, earnestness and "trustworthiness" are no excuse for bad policy and shoddy guardrails.

This conversation is long overdue, and change must happen now. These recent security breaches are only the stories we know of, and we only know of them for the political wins both parties seemingly score by their breathless exposure of these delicious deviations. This is not a Red issue or a Blue issue, this is an American national security issue.

Those of us who are elected and serve in the executive and legislative branches must be cleared in a manner similar to all others who manage our nation’s most sensitive information. We must be trained in the same way and have similar standards of accountability to which we are held -- breaches of similar magnitude in the military are career-enders.

I stand ready from my seat on the Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees here in the House to help, and look forward to a government-wide response to this crisis.

I fear we have only seen the tip of this iceberg, and we must move swiftly to contain the damage and to control future incidents to protect our national security.