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Background; elected officials considered "vetted" by election and receive no formal background check before receiving sensitive/secret information

Politico's January 5, 2023 Speaker debacle puts U.S. security 'at risk,' GOP lawmakers warn (pre-speaker selection) includes the following:

Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) said he and fellow Armed Services member Don Bacon (R-Neb.) were scheduled to meet with Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley in secure House facilities on Wednesday to discuss security in the Indo-Pacific region, but were barred from doing so.

“I’m informed by House security that, technically, I don’t have a clearance,” Gallagher told reporters. “I’m a member of the Intel Committee, I’m on the Armed Services Committee, and I can’t meet in the SCIF to conduct essential business.

“My point is we have work to do that we can’t do right now,” he added.

Lawmakers aren’t required to obtain security clearances, but are permitted access to sensitive information through their positions.

and

“The secure facility that we work in every day when we’re here, we can’t go in there right now,” Wenstrup said. “We would get daily briefs. We’re in there all the time. And right now, we can’t be in there at all.”

Per:

This new (for me) information leads me to wonder just how much they can access if they really want it.

So we can conclude that a politician, even a relatively junior one, through political means of any sort, can potentially get on the US House of Representatives Armed Services Committee or even become its Chairman, and then with no other vetting than what's done by the press and opposition research1, gain access to sensitive or perhaps secret information.

Question: Who limits what sensitive/secret information is shared with the US House Armed Services Committee? In the name of "oversight" could a member get whatever they want if they push hard enough?


1example of the inexactness and perhaps inadequacy of vetting by only the press and opposition research: December 28, 2022 cbc.ca A newly elected Republican congressman lied about his life story. Now he's facing real trouble

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  • As it stands it appears the parts of the question talking about members not being able to get information while the speaker vote was ongoing is irrelevant to the question. This question should be edited to remove the irrelevant information and focus on the actual question which appears to be who decides what information congress/committees can have access to.
    – Joe W
    Jan 8, 2023 at 23:13
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    Technically, the Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence and Special Operations "has jurisdiction over Department of Defense policy and programs and accounts related to military intelligence, national intelligence, ...". The House Armed Services Committee ("they" in the title) only gets what the subcommittee shares under committee rules. For an ordinary committee member (body Q), certainly not. However, this does not address the first Q.
    – Rick Smith
    Jan 12, 2023 at 12:11

3 Answers 3

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+100

Q: Who limits what sensitive/secret information is shared with the US House Armed Services Committee? In the name of "oversight" could a member get whatever they want if they push hard enough?

The House Armed Services Committee only has direct access to Department of Defense (DOD) information.

Executive Order 13526 is the standard for classifying information, including "military plans, weapons systems, or operations" of the type which may fall under the oversight authority of the Committee on Armed Services. As the classifying agency, DOD is the agency who determines whether its sensitive or secret information is shared with the committee. It follows that no "member get whatever they want if they push hard enough". The DOD must first determine whether that member has a "need to know".

The Congressional Oversight Manual adds, Who Can Access Classified Materials?, *mdash;

The executive order does not contain any instructions regarding disclosures to Congress or its committees of jurisdiction. “Members of Congress, as constitutionally elected officers, do not receive security clearances as such, but are instead presumed to be trustworthy,” thereby fulfilling the first requirement to access classified materials. Members of Congress still face the “need to know” requirement. A Member could assert that he or she fulfills this requirement based on the constitutional duties and responsibilities of his or her office. The executive branch may disagree with this interpretation and has previously stated that it retains the final authority to determine if a Member has a need to know. Congressional aides, support staff, and other legislative branch employees do not automatically have access to classified information and, therefore, must go through the necessary security clearance process prior to being permitted to review such information.

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  • Just to square this with QuantumWalnuts answer, the Congressional Oversight Manual itself is a law made by Congress? So an individual member of Congress is bound by it but Congress as whole could change it if it wanted to?
    – quarague
    Jan 15, 2023 at 21:05
  • @quarague - The Manual is produced by the Congressional Research Service, which provides advice to Congress. It is not a law. See the Disclaimer at the end of the report for a better understanding.
    – Rick Smith
    Jan 15, 2023 at 21:21
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Who limits what sensitive/secret information is shared with the US House Armed Services Committee?

The law limits what government information Congress is entitled to have, and since Congress makes the law, that essentially means Congress is sovereign and can demand any document it wants.

To put in another way, if congresspersons are prohibited from accessing certain documents, it would only be because they are constrained by the norms and traditions shared by their own colleagues.

In the name of "oversight" could a member get whatever they want if they push hard enough?

Technically speaking, yes.

Like I said before, Congress can grant itself unlimited oversight power through legislation. I suppose while the President can veto legislations to expand such oversight power, doing so would create such backlash that might lead to Congress threatening impeachment.

Since there is no mechanism for the executive to dissolve the legislature in the US. Congress can be as aggressive as it wants in terms of oversight. They are only subject to the voter's confidence every two years.

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Several points, to answer your question.

Point 1 : The House's committees are established under House Rules, and members are appointed to them by the Speaker (according to the same Rules). The same rules could (and I imagine it's the case) entrust the House's oversight powers to be exercised autonomously by one committee for specific or sensitive subjects, and at the same time limit the House's oversight powers so that only that committee has access to such information.

Point 2 : congressmen Gallagher and Bacon are not, or were not at the time you mentioned, members of the whatever committee, because there is no such committee until it's established by the Rules (which didn't exist at the time you mentioned, and still don't exist at the time I'm writing this), and until they are appointed to it by the Speaker (which there was none at the time you mentioned). People can call themselves members of a committee if they already were and are sure to remain appointed there, but there's no certainty or legal value to these considerations.

Until the Rules empower a committee or individual members, only the House as a whole has an oversight power. Unless a law allows members of Congress individual powers to do things, such as french members of parliament who are allowed to enter and visit any french center of detention, for example. If there are such laws in the US, it could be argued that at jan. 5 the members you mentioned were not sworn into office and were only members-elect - although I would not agree with that interpretation.

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    This does not appear to address the point of members of congress having access to the material because they are elected and not because they are on a committee or have a clearance. I think the issue here is that they are not members of congress yet as they had not been sworn in by the speaker rather then them not being on a committee.
    – Joe W
    Jan 8, 2023 at 4:19
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    Thanks for the points, but "Who limits what sensitive/secret information is shared with the US House Armed Services Committee? Can they get whatever they want for 'oversight'?"
    – uhoh
    Jan 8, 2023 at 4:19
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    @JoeW The stuff at the start of the question regarding what happens up to the point of having a Speaker and committee / subcommittee assignments apparently is superfluous. The question appears to be asking which members of Congress can have access to classified information, and to what extent that access applies. Jan 8, 2023 at 8:35
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    @JoeW All of the stuff in the question regarding what happens prior to members being sworn in and assigned to committees apparently is superfluous. I do not think that that is what the OP is asking about. The problem is that the OP has a penchant for adding superfluous (and hence confusing) information, thinking that that will help. It doesn't. Jan 8, 2023 at 17:40
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    @DavidHammen And I still say that the question is asking about why they couldn't get access to the information prior to a speaker being selected.
    – Joe W
    Jan 8, 2023 at 18:20

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