Hot, crowded and secret room now part of impeachment lore
WASHINGTON — It's "excruciating." It smells like a "locker room." And what happens there is supposed to stay there.
When history is written about President Donald Trump's presidency, a key chapter in the House's drive to impeach him will be set in a spy-proof bunker tucked beneath a spiral staircase just to the east of the U.S. Capitol. There, three House committees have been hearing about Trump's pressure campaign on Ukraine, gathering testimony that could serve as the foundation for articles of impeachment.
The Sensitive Compartmentalized Information Facility — SCIF for short — seems poised to join Washington impeachment lore. But unlike, say, the former Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge of Watergate fame or the White House Rose Garden, the SCIF is an axis of political intrigue out of sight by design. Nowadays, more people surrender their cellphones and cram inside than the space was designed to hold, with little distraction from the proceedings or each other.
All that ambition, heat and high political stakes fuel the SCIF's air of mystery. Inside, those factors apparently infuse the air itself, which alternates between too cold and too hot.
"My staff tells me it's started to smell like a locker room in here," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said during an Oct. 11 deposition of former Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch .
That drew rare agreement from the House Oversight Committee's top Republican.
"It was hot today. The air wasn't on right," Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said on Monday, grinning. "It had nothing to do with the rhetoric."
The SCIF that has become the center of impeachment is not one of a kind. The secure space is built to specific standards on material, size and how it's used, all aimed at allowing classified work to be conducted without the risk of spying.
There's one for senators, where they gathered to read private documents during last year's stormy confirmation hearings of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The White House Situation Room is a SCIF. These spaces have been built inside homes, like the ranch of former President George W. Bush in Texas and Trump's residences in New York and Florida.
Typically, they are windowless. Vents and other gaps include materials, such as rubber, that interfere with the conduction of sound. And all who enter are required to sign in, surrender and lock up electronic devices and phones, even fitness bracelets. Then their disappearing act begins.
At least, that's how it's supposed to work. In an episode that amped up the SCIF's fame, about two dozen Republicans complaining about the secrecy stormed inside late last month, pausing only to hold a press conference at the bottom of the circular stairwell. For a few hours, they held up the Democrat-driven inquiry, which Schiff said had to be kept secret to prevent witnesses from coordinating their stories. Several in the GOP appeared to be tweeting from inside the vault, a potential security breach. The House sergeant-at-arms, the parliamentarian and Capitol security officers were called.
At one point during the SCIF standoff, Republicans ordered a cart full of pizzas for the reporters staking out the site. The boxes were much photographed but sat untouched, because journalists can't accept gifts from lawmakers. Eventually the Republicans left, holding another press conference on the way out. The proceedings resumed, but the chamber had to be "swept" for any surveillance or other compromised security.