WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Senate returned to the Capitol this week from the August Recess, months before the midterm elections but a month after the former president was found to have top secret information he'd taken from the White House at his country club in Florida.
Each party holds its weekly lunches with the caucus just off the floor of the Senate. They voted and then went off in all directions. The Senate Intelligence Committee, however, headed toward the basement where they are able to view top secret information without danger of it being compromised. The sensitive compartmented information facility (SCIF) is to the left of an elevator and next to a police call box. A map to the right shows where to go in the event of an emergency.
There's an electrical outlet below it, invoking an image of the last place in an airport one would use to charge a phone or electronics because there is a danger of being whacked by a door as people come out.
The double doors look heavy, though you don't dare try to open them. It isn't even clear if it's real wood or an Ikea particleboard, but they have enough of a sheen to them that you can see the fingerprints of those who have come before you. Some of the most powerful people in the world, and they've left behind an involuntary indication that they were there, just like the classified documents handled at Mar-a-Lago.
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The same sign appears on both doors, no more than three feet apart. It would be impossible to miss: "NO PUBLIC OR MEDIA BEYOND THIS POINT." It's unknown who was allowed to enter Trump's basement storage room, but there is surveillance videos that were obtained by the FBI. Those are likely being reviewed by national intelligence experts as part of the risk assessment to determine just how detrimental Trump's theft of documents was to American national security.
There are 109 people who have clearance to access whatever is in the room. There are 100 senators, four majority committee staffers, four minority committee staffers, and one committee clerk.
Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) told Raw Story that the first thing you do is "shed your electronic communication gear" as you enter the room. "You look, then you leave."
Senators can't talk about what they've seen with anyone, even with each other, once they exit the room.
However, this is what national security staff fear happened with Trump. Did he pop off and talk about French President Emmanuel Macron's love life? Did he show off his determination to establish a nuclear reactor on the moon? Did he brag about having the details on the nuclear program belonging to Israel? Sen. Angus King (I-ME) wants to know Trump's motive for taking the documents. It's a question that has surfaced in the past weeks as more and more information becomes known about what he took.
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"There's a danger of it falling into the wrong hands," explained King when Raw Story asked him about the procedures around classified information.
The fear comes from the first year of Trump's presidency when he would welcome anyone and everyone willing to pay the price into Mar-a-Lago. An official follows the president around with what is called the "nuclear football," meaning the nuclear capabilities for the president to launch a strike at any time and in any place if necessary. Mar-a-Lago patrons were having their pictures taken with it like a furry character at Disney World.
The SCIF is said to be spy-proof with walls that contain sound attenuation material attached so it doesn't slide down leaving a gap at the top, the Architect of the Capitol described. There is a gypsum wallboard, steel support grid systems and metal angle moldings. It isn't known what Trump's office at Mar-a-Lago is made of, but it likely doesn't reach that level of security.
The underground location was completed in 2008 when the Capitol was constructing the Visitor's Center. Up until that point the meetings took place in an office in the attic of the Capitol.
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It isn't the only SCIF that exists in the area, there are others in the office buildings where Senate and House staff can have committee meetings. One was notoriously stormed by Republican members during the first impeachment of Donald Trump in 2019.
"I have to go here, or either upstairs to a SCIF in order to look at these documents," King told us outside of the room. "I can't take them home. I can't take them to my office. I have to read them in that room."
Some documents at Mar-a-Lago were marked "TS," meaning "top secret." Others were marked with "SCI," which means Sensitive compartmented information. Those are the documents that include information about how the intelligence was obtained, like the term "sources and methods," which experts have spent the past several weeks talking about on cable news.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) explained that a lot of classified intelligence they see is gathered by personnel.
"Their identities could be revealed. Their lives could be at risk. It would undermine our national security," she said.
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"The first thing you learn when you get on the Intelligence Committee is that there's a reason for classification of these documents," said Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA). "When it comes to human intelligence people's lives are at stake. When it comes to signals intelligence, it is something we could have spent years and billions of dollars penetrating a network — it could be in jeopardy."
King explained that there are even members of the CIA who aren't cleared to read some of that information. Warner echoed the same comment, saying that there are documents that are so sensitive that they can't even stay in the SCIF.
"There's a couple of underlying issues," he explained. "One is, even if one of your adversaries gets the results they can reverse engineer the data and figure out how you got it. That's the danger. That's how you lose people and also you lose access. So careless handling of classified documents is a very, very serious matter."
Last year, the CIA revealed that it has lost dozens of informants either to them being killed or they stopped working with the United States.
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"Top American counterintelligence officials warned every C.I.A. station and base around the world last week about troubling numbers of informants recruited from other countries to spy for the United States being captured or killed," those familiar with the matter told the New York Times.
If someone like King took classified documents from the SCIF home with him like Trump did he'd be kicked off of the Intelligence committee with no questions asked.
"Secondly, I could be subject to some penalties depending on the nature of the transaction," he said.
King recalled being a governor and when leaving office the things he took with him were gifts that people gave him and photos of moments where he was proud of the work they'd done.
"But to take classified documents, I don't know why you would do that," King said. "That's the most puzzling part about this to me. Was it just careless packing? Although, there are thousands, probably millions of documents in the White House. Why these? And why the resistance to giving them back? To me, that's the most important question, to which we have no answer."
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Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) explained that the criminal penalties he would face if he took documents from the SCIF home with him would depend on what he took. It would cause serious ethical and internal problems for him.
"I'm always extra careful about that stuff," Blumenthal explained to Raw Story.
Gillibrand agreed, saying that they're "never allowed to take materials out of that room. Ever. No paper or notes. If you take notes while you're in there, that is — the notes are then locked up. So, you aren't allowed to take material out of a secure environment. Ever."
Sen. John Thune (R-SD) agreed, noting that "we can't" take anything home with them from a SCIF.
Braun said he has no idea what would happen to him if he took the documents, acting as if it was never even a consideration. "You go in, you look, then you leave," he explained.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said the same, he has no idea what would happen if he stole classified documents from the SCIF, but he's more upset about the FBI and Hunter Biden.
Paul said that even after 18 months of negotiation and the fact that top secret information was insecure, he would have continued to negotiate with Trump about getting the documents back. He went on to explain that locking up one's political opponents shouldn't be possible.
When asked about the chants of "lock her up" for Hillary Clinton, Paul claimed it was all partisan rhetoric. But he claimed that it's unfair if Trump is arrested for retaining government documents after leaving office when Clinton was never jailed for having a private email server while serving as the Secretary of State.
"I could be prosecuted," Gillibrand told Raw Story. She's among the senators who sit on the Senate Intelligence Committee as well as Armed Services subcommittees that deal with cybersecurity and emerging threats. "It would put people's lives at risk.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said he's not even sure what was in the stuff Trump took to Mar-a-Lago.
"There's all sorts of classified materials. It's hard for me to believe it's particularly sensitive if it's been sitting at Mar-a-Lago for a year and a half before they do anything about it," Cornyn told Raw Story. Neither Justice Department nor the National Archives knew what Trump had prior to them obtaining the documents. The only reason that the Archives knew that Trump had taken things with him is that there were major things from his presidency he talked about and there was no record of it.
Cornyn complained that the DOJ is "leaking like a sieve." He did acknowledge that no person should ever have the documents in their home. He went on to complain that the FBI took personal items and said that it wasn't fair to the former president.
Gillibrand called it "outrageous and frightening that the president is so disconnected from the importance of national security and the importance of security of these types of materials that he is oblivious — seemingly obvious to the national security concerns he's creating. I think it's deeply concerning and I'd like to know why he brought those materials outside of a secure area and I think it should be investigated."
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) dismissed it, saying that no one knows what was in the documents, while also attacking the Justice Department for leaking what was in the documents.
Rubio told a local news outlet that it was nothing more than a storage issue, though it's unclear why Trump refused to turn them over for 18 months.
Warner dismissed the "storage" complaint entirely. "The notion that some have put forward that this was simply careless or document storage is so far from anything that was beaten into any member of the Intelligence Committee. Anyone that makes that kind of argument — it's one of the reasons why it's important, and I'm really glad our committee is the only one that's been bipartisan request to get this brief — it's just for this brief to come as quickly as possible."