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STAFFERS ON CRITICAL COMMITTEES who handle sensitive material are investigated and provided with security clearances. Members of Congress are not. Nor are their personal staffs.
The result is a huge security hole on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress, irrespective of party, rarely are elected because they are trustworthy and responsible. The political process, alas, rewards other “skills.” Yet today simply being elected yields access to material denied to most Americans. There is little to stop a venal, irresponsible, or hostile member from disseminating classified information for economic or political profit, or ideological gain.
Even a responsible member served by staffers who have received official clearances may be ill served by an aide in his personal office — a chief of staff, legislative director, or someone else. Having received no special scrutiny to win access to sensitive material, legislators may treat such information more casually than justified. Staffers report that representatives of foreign powers sometimes troll for classified information in congressional in-boxes.
It doesn’t much matter, in terms of national security, who sits on the Agriculture or Education and Labor Committees, for instance. But even largely mundane committees sometimes have at least one subcommittee dealing with sensitive matters: the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism and Homeland Security.
Moreover, the Committees on Homeland Security, Armed Services, Foreign Affairs/Foreign Relations, and Intelligence regularly deal with sensitive matters. Consider the four subcommittees under the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence: Terrorism, Human Intelligence, Analysis, and Counterintelligence; Technical and Tactical Intelligence; Intelligence Community Management; and Oversight and Investigations.
Should the American people be pleased at the thought of Alcee Hastings serving on this Committee? Would they feel comfortable with William Jefferson, Duke Cunningham, Don Sherwood, or John Murtha sitting on this panel? Or James Traficant, Ozzie Myers, or Bob Ney? Would Americans feel secure knowing that these legislators had appointed staffers to these committees?
Voters can elect whomever they want. Legislators can choose whomever they want for committee membership. But security investigations should be standard for members and staffers. Although concerns over separation of powers might limit executive branch prerogatives, Congress could order such investigations.
Clearing everyone on Capitol Hill would be quite a task — 535 legislators and at least 16,000 staffers. However, formal clearances at least could be required for members of leadership and their top staffers, members and as well as staffers working on sensitive panels, and top personal staffers in the offices of such members. There should be no more automatic access to sensitive information, whatever the level, whoever the person. Similar checks should be initiated for chairman and ranking members, and relevant staff, of other committees and subcommittees; although such people might not normally come into contact with classified material, they constitute the leadership of Congress.
Moreover, federal investigations should conduct a superficial review of all members — who, after all, will be voting on national security matters and will be positioned to see sensitive documents — as well as their senior staff. The Justice Department should look for obvious security problems requiring further investigation. Finally all offices should be briefed on security procedures and provided with safes. Ultimately, legislators would continue to decide what member served on what committees and what staffers served what members, but access to classified material would require clearance from independent investigators.
It seems likely that William Jefferson is a crook. Absent a conviction, his fellow legislators should accept the decision of his constituents to return him to office. But they should not reward him with a sensitive committee assignment. If he isn’t fit to write America’s tax laws, he isn’t fit to oversee America’s anti-terrorism efforts.
But the problem runs beyond just one corrupt congressman. Capitol Hill might always leak, but it still could take its security responsibilities more seriously. We should hold elected officials to the same clearance standards to which we hold everyone else.
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