Lawmakers can ask for intel info, but they still might not get it

Lawmakers who want access to classified information have to ask for it. But that doesn’t mean they’ll get it. [WATCH VIDEO]

While government contractors such as NSA leaker Edward Snowden and others with high-level security clearances can view classified government secrets, members of Congress face a much tougher burden: consent from their peers.

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Some members of Congress are grumbling that the Obama administration left them in the dark about the existence of far-reaching spy programs. But House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Tuesday defended the process.

“If members of Congress wanted a briefing — obviously all members of Congress have secret clearances … they could get it,” he said.

A top member on the House Intelligence Committee suggested this week that it’s easy for his colleagues to see classified documents.

“There’s members of Congress who said they didn’t know about [NSA surveillance programs]. They could have gotten a briefing whenever they wanted to,” Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) said Monday during an interview on Fox News Channel.

But that’s not quite true, according to the former top-ranking Republican and Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

Former Intelligence Committee leaders Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) and Jane Harman (D-Calif.) said that just because a member asks for access doesn’t mean that it will be granted.

Hoekstra said that House lawmakers must submit a formal request for access to certain information.

“The committee will have a business meeting, and the committee will have a vote as to whether they will allow a member of Congress who is not on the committee to have access to that data. And I would say, a significant number of those requests are typically denied,” Hoekstra explained in an interview with The Hill.

The committee’s ruling, Harman said, would depend on what type of information was requested.

“I don’t want to give examples because these requests were all classified, but my instinct was to try and accommodate members,” said Harman, who is now the head of the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

The Intelligence Committee has long been “extremely protective” of its turf and the information it has access to, according to a source familiar with the panel.

The process is so closed that some frustrated rank-and-file members try to get information from other panels, such as the Armed Services or Foreign Affairs committees. Another option is to ask intelligence agencies from other countries while on congressional delegation trips. 

The source added that members who wait for years to get on the Intelligence Committee love telling their colleagues, “I would tell you that, but it’s classified.”

Intelligence experts say there are legitimate reasons why all members of Congress are not allowed to sit in on classified briefings, most notably because of the need to prevent leaks.

Hoekstra said there have been some changes made since current Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and ranking member Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) took over the panel.

A source familiar with the current review process said that Rogers and Ruppersberger decide between themselves whether to grant access to lawmakers who don’t sit on the panel.

Harman said that each member granted access was required to sign a document swearing confidentiality.

But members of Congress, technically, are all granted “top-level security clearance,” according to Hoekstra.

Hoekstra pointed out that on certain matters, only the so-called “Gang of Four” — the top-ranking Republican and Democrat on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees — are briefed by intelligence officials.

On other matters, the Gang of Four expands to eight and includes the Speaker, the House minority leader and the Senate majority and minority leaders.

There are situations, such as the current NSA leak saga when the details have been widely reported, where the executive branch agrees to hold “all member briefings.”

Lawmakers learn a little more than what has been reported in the news, Hoekstra said. But those members are barred from discussing the matter because technically they received the information at a classified briefing.

As a result, some members refuse to attend the briefings because “they believe — and rightfully so — that they will be limited in what they can say about these programs moving into the future,” in order to avoid accusations of “leaking classified information,” Hoekstra said.

If a lawmaker’s request is approved, the member is taken to a secure room in the Capitol or the Capitol Visitor Center where they have to leave all electronic devices, including cellphones and smartphones, outside. They are typically watched by staff and are not allowed to take notes on what they are reading.

A former House Intelligence staffer who oversaw part of the NSA’s budget told The Hill that members could much more easily get access to the conference version of the annual Intelligence Authorization Act. But, the ex-staffer said, details about programs in the budget bill are usually vague and typically coded in acronyms so that it can be difficult for a member to get specifics about a program unless they know exactly what they’re looking for.

On intelligence matters, the Senate operates differently than the House. Yet, senators are also complaining about the process.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) last week said, “ ‘Fully briefed’ doesn’t mean we know what’s going on.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who does not serve on the Senate Intelligence panel, said he had to get “special permission” to receive more information about the NSA’s PRISM initiative. But, even then, he was denied details of the sweeping program for collecting Internet communications.

“I had special permission to find out about the program. It raised concerns for me,” he said last week on MSNBC.

Merkley disputed President Obama’s assertion that “every member of Congress” was briefed on the administration’s telephone surveillance program. The White House has since walked that claim back.

Bob Cusack and Mike Lillis contributed.