So when Gaetz and House minority whip Steve Scalise and their merry band of lawmakers literally barge into a SCIF—they finally left after a five-hour standoff—they’re not just causing a fuss. They’re making a mockery of national security, and to a lesser extent putting it at risk. Especially the congressmen who, as numerous outlets have reported, brought their smartphones into the room.
“A SCIF is designed and regulated to be a secure space—and that means keeping out electronic devices that malicious actors can exploit to conduct surveillance,” says Joshua Geltzer, a former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council. “Bringing those into such a space can cause real national security vulnerabilities. Doing so for a political stunt potentially sacrifices security for partisan points.”
You don’t need a vibrant imagination to see how. The SCIF guidelines from ODNI list three categories of “high-risk” devices: multifunction cellular telephones, electronic devices with RF transmitting (e.g., Bluetooth), and photographic, video, and audio recording devices. Smartphones are all three. They can have malware, and malware can take over microphones and cameras. Making matters worse, the very people storming the SCIF are the among the most at risk of compromise from a sophisticated adversary. Who wouldn’t want to hack a congressperson?
“They’re definitely appealing targets,” says Mieke Eoyang, who worked as a staffer on the House Intelligence Committee and currently heads up the national security program at Third Way, a nonprofit think tank. “Foreign adversaries have been trying to collect on some of these people from the moment they announced. These are high-value intelligence targets, and well-known.”
It’s hard to overstate the extent to which the GOP members involved in the ruckus either didn’t know or didn’t care about the kinds of risks they were inviting. Several of them not only brought their phones into the SCIF, they proudly tweeted that they had done so. Representative Alex Moody (R-West Virginia) appears to have tried to livestream the affair, but settled for an audio dispatch.
Several of the representatives later appended “sent by staff” or some variation to their missives, in an attempt to indicate that they themselves had not tweeted from inside the SCIF. Apparently not everyone felt the same retroactive rationality; according to a House Intelligence Committee official, some GOP members refused to give up their devices even at the request of the Sergeant at Arms and security personnel.