Members of Congress do not possess the same security clearances as you or me. A candidate’s qualifications to access sensitive material is adjudicated by the electorate, and his or her right to know the nation’s secrets is decided in the voting booth. This isn’t to say that a member of Congress can, on the first day, march down to subterranean vaults in Washington and learn where we’re hiding the flying saucers. Newly-sworn-in members of Congress must take oaths affirming that they will not run to China with everything they find out, and security offices for the Senate and House issue Congressional clearances, of sorts, for its members.
How much investigation goes into this? Ask Dennis Hastert, who served as Speaker of the House during the worst of 9/11 and the subsequent transformation of the national security state. If there was a secret to be known, he almost certainly would have known it. All the while, unbeknownst to all, he sat under the decades-long threat of blackmail for child molestation. There’s no reason to believe that he committed treason, though we do know that he paid blackmail money to a former victim who threatened to go public. If China or Iran knew about such a skeleton in Hastert’s closet, would they have felt any qualms about asking for secrets in exchange for silence?
To be sure, Hastert is not alone. It is impossible to know with any level of accuracy how many members of Congress live under similar threat. It stands to reason that a significant number of Congressional representatives wouldn’t stand a chance under the clearance process run by the Office of Personnel Management and the Defense Security Service. Consider a few of the adjudicative criteria for a candidate for a security clearance: sexual behavior, personal conduct, financial considerations, and use of information technology systems. Those benchmarks alone would disqualify both major party candidates for president from even wearing a red escort badge, let alone give them unfettered access to TS/SCI documents. (Sleep well, America!)
THOSE IN OFFICE (WHO HAVE BEEN CAUGHT)
There are members of Congress in office today who would never qualify for a clearance. If their colleagues in the Congressional security offices or in the leadership give them a wink and a nod—if they haven’t already—they’re as welcome as the Director of National Intelligence to peruse the family jewels, and there’s nothing anybody can do to stop them. Here are some of those members:
Sex, Lies and Audiotape
Spousal psychological abuse. Check. Suicidal ideation. Check. Mistress. Check. Pressuring mistress to abort a lovechild. Check. Having an affair with a patient. (He’s a doctor.) Check. Prescribing her narcotics. Check. Drug abuse. Check. I’m no clearance investigator, but this SF-86 would be one for the record books. Or maybe not, since Scott DesJarlais tried to keep all of this secret—an even worse offense. If you were a foreign intelligence agent, wouldn’t you love to spend a few hours with this guy? Scott DesJarlais is in his fifth year as U.S. representative for the 4th district in Tennessee.
Taxes, Tax Shelters and Pay to Play
Charlie Rangel has been in office since 1971, so it’s only natural that after 30+ years, he decided that maybe he could cut loose in 2008 and just stop following the laws he didn’t like. So one of his constituents allegedly and essentially bribed him by giving him a $30,000 per year discount on his apartment rent. Who among us, am I right? So he stopped paying taxes on a beachside villa he owns and rents out in the Dominican Republic. I mean, if you can afford a beachside villa in the first place, aren’t you above paying taxes? So there was a loophole in the tax structure of Bermuda, creating a tax shelter for corporations. Rangel vowed to close that loophole. Then one of the companies who would be affected by the closure donated a million dollars to the City College of New York and founded the Charles B. Rangel School of Public Service. And then Charlie Rangel decided to support the loophole after all! Nothing shady about that, right? Of course that’s not quid pro quo, why do you ask? Nah, just check the box marked “No” on the SF-86 and move on to the next one.
Underachiever: 22 Convictions
Until two months ago, Chaka Fattah represented the 2nd district of Pennsylvania. If he had it his way, he would still be in office, though. He served a full year while under indictment. (He’s been in Congress since 1995.) In June, he was convicted of wire fraud, mail fraud, making false statements to banks, bribery, conspiracy, bank fraud, falsification of records, money laundering—to name only a few! He was convicted on 22 counts in all. He resigned effective October 3, 2016. In other words, on top of having been compromised for years, and with nothing left to lose (and a possible foreign financial windfall to gain) he said, “Enh, I think I’ll stick around for a while until I’m carted off to prison.” After informing the Speaker of the House of this, and presumably being eviscerated by said Speaker, Fattah made a quick turnaround and submitted his resignation effective immediately.
Overachiever: 22 Counts and Still in Congress
You’ve got to hand it to Corrine Brown. Most people, when facing 357 years in federal prison, go ahead and quit their jobs, because, I mean, why not? Dedicated public servant that she is, however, she has vowed to remain in the House of Representatives, where she represents the 5th district of Florida. She has been indicted on 24 counts, including mail fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, filing false tax returns—even theft of government property! At least she doesn’t have access to classified material while still serving in Congress. Wait a minute—the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials doesn’t deal with any secrets, does it? What about the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation? Well surely not the Subcommittee on Aviation. I mean, no terrorists ever threatened airliners, right? Everything is fine.
SO YOU’VE BEEN CAUGHT COMPROMISING NATIONAL SECURITY
This is only a sample of the compromised politicians currently in Congress. It’s the ones who have actually been caught. (The number of closet drug abusers, compulsive gamblers, and adulterers is, of course, impossible to tally.) A fair question to ask is what might happen to a member of Congress who actually leaks classified material that harms national security, and is convicted of it? If it’s not totally clear by now, Congress exists largely above the law (email me the next time you see a member of Congress standing in a TSA line). Still, even for members of Congress, jeopardizing national security can come with a price.
Congressional pensions are notoriously generous. The “Hiss Act” was passed in the aftermath of revelations that Alger Hiss, a State Department employee, had shared state secrets with the Soviet Union. The statute ended all pensions for federal employees convicted of “espionage, treason, or several other national security offenses against the United States.” This includes members of Congress.
Meanwhile, the Espionage Act is ever in force, though it has only once been applied to a single member of Congress: Victor L. Berger, the first elected socialist to the U.S. House of Representatives. He was charged in 1919 with publishing anti-war opinions and convicted of violating the Espionage Act, though the conviction was overturned. Berger went on to serve in the House for three successive terms. These days, the Espionage Act is the Obama Administration’s weapon of choice for silencing whistleblowers, and little else. Still, it does stand as perhaps a small deterrent against Congressional leaks and foreign collaboration. With the lot we have in Washington these days, however, it’s only a matter of time.