Every senator will now be able to designate one aide as eligible to apply for a TS/SCI clearance according to an announcement made by Sen. Schumer and reported by Politico. Clearances give staffers the ability to review matters deemed classified by the Executive branch. Senator Murphy is a long-time champion of this change, which had broad, bipartisan support.
Some Senate personal office staffers already were eligible to obtain a Top Secret (TS) clearance, but they were ineligible to obtain access to Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI), which controls the dissemination of information separate from a TS clearance. SCI refers to information concerning or derived from sensitive intelligence sources, methods, or analytical processes.
The possession of a TS/SCI clearance significantly empowers staff to conduct oversight of the Executive branch. In the Senate, approximately 1/3 of senators had at least one committee staffer with this clearance level. This means that most senators did not have the assistance of an expert aide who was cleared at a high enough level to support their review of highly classified matters. This contrasts with the Executive branch, which has hundreds of thousands of people cleared at this level.
Demand Progress Education Fund and the Project on Government Oversight released this primer on how clearances work in the Congress. There is still a lot we do not know, including the number of House staff and support agency staff with clearances and how long it takes for staff to obtain their clearances.
Demand Progress and POGO have jointly submitted testimony in the Senate and House calling for expanding clearance availability. In the Senate, we’ve called for every personal office to have one cleared staffer at the TS/SCI level. In the House, Demand Progress has called for every member who serves on a committee to be eligible to request a TS/SCI for one personal office staffer, and certainly every member on HPSCI, HAC-D- and HASC.
Currently, members of the House of Representatives are afforded up to two staffers with a TS clearance, but they are not eligible to obtain a TS/SCI. There have been several notable pushes in the House to address this imbalance — even members of the House Intelligence Committee are not currently afforded personal office staff with TS/SCI clearances, and they have unsuccessfully advocated for their aides to be eligible to obtain them.
Providing a staffer a clearance does not give them access to classified information. Rather, it makes them eligible for access if they can also demonstrate a need-to-know. The Legislative branch is responsible for overseeing the entirety of government but only a few staffers have these high level clearances as compared to hundreds of thousands of their counterparts in the Executive branch. It is past time to level the playing field.