If These Walls Could Talk . . .
Sunday, May 28, 2006
The room is unremarkable, and perhaps that's best. If the decor reflected the conversations that transpired inside, the lighting would be shadowy, the upholstery black, the carpet crimson. Instead, it's all beige -- bland and institutional.
In the lexicon of the U.S. intelligence world, this is a Sensitive Compartmentalized Information Facility, a place where government officials with the highest clearances are briefed on classified reports and analyses by national security agencies: The facts justifying the war in Iraq. The CIA's definition of torture. Domestic wiretapping. Information that could contradict, compromise and even kill.
After the Memorial Day break, hearings will resume here on WMD intelligence. Who will be testifying? That's classified.
For those who have been in one -- and there are easily thousands of these rooms around Washington -- the SCIF is a sanctuary, the ultimate members-only club for the keepers of secrets. By design, they're not architectural showcases, with little in the way of decorative flourishes.
"It's a different room and so it has a serious demeanor" that conveys "half-baked answers will not be brooked," says Bob Graham, former chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. "Things that people are unwilling to say in a public setting they are expected to say here."
"It's seductive," says Tom Kean, who never heard of a SCIF before he was named chairman of the 9/11 Commission. "You get the idea you're seeing something nobody else can see."
That would be true of Room 219 in the Hart Senate Office Building -- the Intelligence Committee's conference room -- a longtime SCIF.
Gen. Michael V. Hayden, President Bush's choice to head the CIA, is a frequent visitor; his name sits atop a stack of placards to the side of the witness table. When he briefs the committee, members sit in a horseshoe arrangement on a platform above him. A voice-activated, Ouija-like camera encased in a black ball pivots to focus on committee members questioning off-site witnesses. But the truth is it's rarely used. If you've got something to tell the committee, they want you sitting in the chair, telling what you know in person.
The committee has heard details about WMDs, 9/11, terrorism and war. Mercifully, according to those who've been there, there's less of the oratory that tends to salt the committee's public meetings. Sometimes, senators fumble to find the questions that will get them the answers they want.
What's said inside the SCIF stays there. It's designed that way, in accordance with an 84-page directive from the director of central intelligence that spells out how communication lines must be sanitized and scrambled, computer systems hardened and telephones checked to ensure that they can't pick up and process audio when they're hung up and idle.
The walls have quarter-inch metal shielding, minimum. The floors are either eight-inch-thick reinforced concrete or contain metal plates to thwart eavesdroppers. Vaultlike doors guard the entry. Copper foil is stuffed into the corners to prevent transmissions. Ventilation shafts have metal baffles or bars to stop any "Mission Impossible"-style intruders. Then there are the motion detectors and alarms.
Beyond the official acronym (pronounced "skiff"), even its nicknames carry an aura.