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What Really Happens in an Intelligence “Scif”

by | published March 30th, 2017

The U.S. is just beginning an investigative process that may be more significant than any series of events since Watergate or Iran-Contra.

Events unfolding may have a major impact on the policy making apparatus and the balance of power inside the Beltway, as well as have profound global implications.

In all of this, almost without question, we will see effects on market pricing, cross-border transit, and international flash points. All three will have pervasive results for the energy sector.

But we are at a very early stage in all of this. So today I thought it useful to broaden our usual discussion and share, from personal experience, what actually happens when one employs a facility that is being bandied about these days.

I’m talking about the term “scif” (pronounced “skiff”). It’s been prominent in the news because of actions by the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee (reviewing documents on the White House grounds) and public interest in how the relevant congressional committees (the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence) review and oversee secure files.

What I’m hearing about scifs today has me concerned…

Scifs Come in All Shapes and Sizes

Scif is an acronym for “Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility.” The phrase initially emerged in the military, but is also widely used to designate a range of applications in the intelligence and law enforcement arenas.

My more than two decades of involvement in the intelligence community meant that I regularly had access to such facilities. They take a variety of forms. Sometimes a scif would be little more than a guarded shipping container with a safe (the “bare walls” version likely to require short notice movement and found in very fluid or front-line conflict operations).

Other times, I would find myself in a high tech “bubble room” in the most secure part of an embassy somewhere or a situation room back home. Here, the entire enclosure would be on springs and windows (if there were any) would have specially treated blinds. Both were there to prevent outsiders from using vibrations as a way of detecting conversations.

Despite such differences in appearance, there are three elements all scifs have in common…

Every Scif Has These Three Features

First, there is controlled access and usage. The facility is only for the review of classified documents by designated individuals and/or for secure meetings of authorized and named persons.

Second, nothing is ever taken out or brought in by those reviewing the documents. Put simply, using your attaché case to take papers out for further review at home or to bring in material not part of the material catalogued for secure review is a violation of federal law (18 U.S. Code §1924). You are not even allowed to take out handwritten notes personally made during reviewing documents within such a facility.

I was often searched coming in or going out. So was everybody else, regardless of rank. There is a pressing national security reason why “sensitive” is the first word in what scif stands for.

Congressmen and senators are generally not subject to such security for two reasons. First, the material to be reviewed has already been assembled by staff (who have their own security clearances). Second, the entire committee usually reviews material in camera.

Third, all material reviewed is secured in an unbroken line from the first time it is provided for review to the final return for “cataloguing.” Each file is logged, must be signed for, that signature must be recorded, and the files, logs, and signatures compared and registered again when the review is finished. If the “before and after” processes don’t match, somebody is in danger of a quick transfer to Leavenworth.

There is a separate (and detailed) series of regulations governing conversations that occur in a scif, along with any audio records of those discussions and those having access to them.

In addition, files can only be read at your level of clearance. These go well beyond the “Secret,” Top Secret,” and “Ultra” headings popular in Hollywood. During my stint, there were as many as 19 separate levels of security classifications along with dozens of restrictions on file distribution.

The highest at one time had no name at all. This was a file having a very visible and specific shade of coloring prominently displayed on its border. It had a distribution list of one – the person elected to sit in the Oval Office.

Ran into a couple of those. Didn’t even want to grace them with my fingerprints. I literally moved them past my station by using an elbow!

It’s important to note that merely because you have authority to access the room hardly means you can read everything that might be accessible by others.

There are always protocols that must be followed.

What You See on the News is Not How a Scif is Supposed to Work

These govern what, where, and who: that is, the information to be reviewed; the location where that review is to take place (the scif); and both who can read it and who is authorized to provide it. Federal law applies to both principals and staff.

Putting this matter within the purview of current matters swirling about the U.S. House of Representatives, one does not individually take in papers to review in a scif. You also cannot be simply given papers for review later in a secure location.

You are provided the papers only at the site, those papers must have been previously logged for review by personnel having the requisite security clearance after a specific request and/or authorization has been made detailing what is to be reviewed.

You don’t simply stroll over to the Old Executive Office Building for a look-see… after receiving a mysterious phone call obliging that you leave a car driven by staff to be picked up by an uber.

We’re not writing a novel here. This is a real-world national security situation.

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  1. Go
    April 15th, 2017 at 10:06 | #1

    Fully agree with you SCIF riff. The lack of general awareness regarding access and control of sensitive info leads to the public not understanding when they have been duped.

    An acronym is picked up, romanticized, run thru various filters and when it is finally regurgitated to and by vox populi it has lost all semblance of its original meaning.

  2. Brent H Dixon
    April 22nd, 2017 at 12:41 | #2

    If there was one person who knows everything in the whole file then it would not be confidential and the secretary of the state is the most important issue here.

  3. Bob Madden
    August 8th, 2017 at 14:29 | #3

    This so reminds me of the old Get Smart concept of a scif. Hilarious stuff.

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