The topic of security clearance for elected officials has long been a complex one. Members of congress – even those in sensitive committee positions – do not receive or obtain security clearances in the same way that a member of the public would go about obtaining a security clearance based on job or military requirement.
Through the process of election and selection to a seat in the House of Representatives or Senate comes with it a certain public seal of access to information of a sensitive nature. (Few voters likely think about this when they vote, but it’s a key reason trustworthiness often plays a major role in politicking). Both the House and Senate do have security offices and staff – with the responsibility for overseeing access to classified information, among other things.
According to the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence: “There are no written rules, agreed to by both branches, governing what intelligence will be shared with the Hill or how it will be handled. The current system is entirely the product of experience, shaped by the needs and concerns of both branches over the last 20 years.”
House members, beginning with the 104th Congress, do have to take a secrecy oath. Members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence – the committee with oversight over intelligence agencies including the CIA and NSA – have a separate oath, commensurate with their unique access to sensitive information. Again, these oaths take the way of a public pledge, vice the arduous security-clearance process, complete with SF86, undertaken by the average security-cleared professional.
House and Senate staff members with a need to access classified information are required to obtain security clearances. The Office of Senate Security and Office of House Security, respectively, have oversight over the security clearance process for congressional staffers, and background investigations are conducted by the FBI.
With increased congressional oversight of sensitive national security issues – and more scrutiny on both the issues and need for access – the congressional security clearance procedures have come under scrutiny in recent years. An August 2011 CRS report proposed mandating security clearances for all members of congress. Despite several proposals and wrangling on both the legislative and executive sides (due to accusations of leaked information coming from both branches), requirements for members of congress or elected officials to obtain security clearances have never been passed.
Opponents of requiring security clearances argue the process could compromise the independence of legislators. More likely, it would add increased scrutiny on members that may prove politically, if not personally, harmful. Given the number of sex scandals and other congressional debauchery, one could argue a fair number of members of congress may have blackmail problems, and a lot to lose in the event of an unfavorable clearance decision.
Other suggestions have included requiring signed oaths of secrecy, or random drug and polygraph testing for members of congress.
The issue of security clearances for members of congress isn’t one that is likely to go away anytime soon. With increased intelligence oversight and more complex intelligence challenges, one may begin to wonder if the attainment of elected office is a high enough hurdle to open up access to America’s most sensitive secrets.