Intelligence veterans say Republicans storming a secure congressional facility was a 'thuggish' and 'offensive' stunt that risked national security

Alex Wong/Getty ImagesGOP Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida.
  • Intelligence veterans slammed House Republicans for barging into a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility in Congress on Wednesday during a closed-door impeachment hearing.
  • A SCIF (pronounced “skiff”) is designed to prevent electronic eavesdropping by foreign intelligence services that target lawmakers with access to classified information and lax security protocols.
  • Several witnesses told The Washington Post that some Republicans entered the SCIF with their phones. The move was a breach of congressional rules and might have jeopardized US national security.
  • One former CIA operative told Insider that mobile phones were “essentially microphones for sophisticated intelligence services.” He described the episode as “offensive” and “thuggish” and said that anyone in the foreign policy or national security apparatus who engaged in similar behaviour would have faced punishment.
  • A former FBI special agent also told Insider the move was a “security violation” but, taking a dig at President Donald Trump, added that “if our adversaries want to know US plans and intentions, or other sensitive national security information, they just need to call up Trump and he’ll tell them.”
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Intelligence veterans were stunned by news that Republican lawmakers stormed a secure area on Capitol Hill where impeachment hearings were taking place Wednesday, saying what some called a “thuggish” stunt could pose a threat to national security.

More than 30 House Republicans barged into the area, known as a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, while a witness was about to testify in a closed-door session. Witnesses told The Washington Post that several Republican protesters entered the SCIF (pronunced “skiff”) with their phones.

The move is a breach of congressional rules because no personal electronic devices, namely mobile phones, are allowed in the facility.

Glenn Carle, a former CIA covert operative, told Business Insider that mobile phones were “essentially microphones for sophisticated intelligence services” because “services can implant code remotely – from phishing and various attacks – into the phones, which could capture emissions in a given range, and then transmit them later.”

“The Russians have been capturing literally every telephone call made in the United States for decades,” Carle added.

The SCIF is “designed to prevent electronic eavesdropping so members of Congress can receive highly classified information about how the nation collects information on its adversaries,” Mieke Eoyang, a former top House Intelligence Committee staffer, wrote in a tweet.

“Foreign adversaries are constantly trying to figure out what goes on inside those rooms to figure out what the US knows about them, to out US high-level sources in their governments, to know what the US government knows and use it against us,” she continued.

Rep. Michael Conaway, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, collected phones from the Republicans who entered the facility, The Post reported, but it’s unclear whether that was before or after the protest took place.

“In ‘storming the SCIF’ without observing the security protocols, Rep. Gaetz et al, endangered our national security & demonstrated they care more about a political stunt than protecting intelligence information,” Eoyang wrote on Twitter, referring to Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, who led the group of Republicans into the SCIF. “I cannot emphasise enough how serious this is.”

Read more:House Republicans stormed a closed-door impeachment hearing and refused to leave – and Trump approved of it.

Carle agreed.

“It is quite possible that the insecure phones – any electronic device – a lightbulb, hearing aids, and so on – could allow hostile services to penetrate the secure facility and learn what was said, and what electronic countermeasure signatures may look like or reveal,” he said.

Frank Montoya, a recently retired FBI special agent, told Insider the protest posed a security violation but said Wednesday’s stunt showed House Republicans “don’t care about that stuff,” singling out President Donald Trump.

“Besides, these days, if our adversaries want to know US plans and intentions, or other sensitive national security information they just need to call up Trump and he’ll tell them,” Montoya said.

Douglas Wise, former Deputy Director of the Defence Intelligence Agency, told Insider that,while he doesn’t believe that classified information was compromised, the Republicans’ protest has much more catastrophic effects.

“Do I believe that classified information was compromised yesterday? I don’t believe so, but I don’t know because I wasn’t in the room,” Wise said. “But I do know it’s about disruption of the process, intimidation of future witnesses, and pandering to the cult leader of the Republican Party.”

Wise condemned the stunt as a whole, not necessarily for the possible breach in security, but rather the breach in the diplomacy and procedure of Congress.

“Nothing that happened yesterday was constitutional. Nothing yesterday was statutory. And nothing yesterday was consistent with the regulations of the halls of Congress,” he said.

In all, Carle described the episode as “stupid,” “offensive,” and “thuggish” and said it “would lead to penalties, at the least, were an officer in the intelligence and foreign policy communities to engage in it.”

Gaetz later wrote that a tweet published under his name during the protest was sent out by his staff.

“I’m a member of the Armed Services Committee,” Gaetz tweeted from his personal account. “I know SCIF protocols, and I observe them.”

Rep. Andy Biggs’ account also sent out a flurry of tweets while he was inside the chamber during the protest. Each one began with “Reporting from Adam Schiff’s secret chamber….,” though it was not immediately clear whether Biggs or his staff sent the tweets.

Republicans’ protest took place when Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence Laura Cooper was scheduled to testify in the impeachment inquiry, which is examining whether Trump used his public office for private gain and dangled military aid to Ukraine to force the country to launch politically motivated investigations targeting his opponents.

Republicans have slammed House Democrats for the way they’re conducting the hearings, but the House Intelligence Committee’s chairman, Adam Schiff, who is one of the lawmakers leading the investigation, said he wanted the hearings to be behind closed doors so witnesses couldn’t coordinate their testimony ahead of time.

Nearly half of the Republicans who joined in Wednesday’s protest, moreover, are on one or more of the committees overseeing the inquiry and already have access to the testimony, BuzzFeed News reported.

The GOP lawmakers vacated the SCIF by about 3 p.m. ET, and Cooper’s hearing was eventually able to continue.

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