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House Republicans Breach Secured Deposition Hearing, Raising Questions Over its Legality

On Wednesday Oct. 23, President Trump’s impeachment process seemed to reach a boiling point when a group of House Republicans stormed in on a closed-door witness deposition. 

Laura Cooper, Russia’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, was set to testify in front of the House Intelligence Committee regarding the Ukraine aid – the issue at the center of the impeachment investigation. 

Due to the disruption, Cooper’s testimony was delayed for more than five hours. It resumed later that afternoon when the group of Republicans left the room.

Impeachment inquiry depositions take place in a secure facility known as a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. There are several secure SCIF locations, where sensitive and classified information is discussed to prevent any outside surveillance or spying. 

The SCIF location that was breached by the group of House Republicans is located underground in the Capitol Visitor Center, where the House Intelligence Committee resides. 

The group of Republicans, which included Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-LA, were led by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-FL, demanding that Cooper’s deposition be made public.

Gaetz has barged in on a previous deposition earlier in the impeachment inquiry, before being removed by the House Parliamentarian. 

Not everyone is allowed in the SCIF. Only members who have been authorized to enter and who are part of the committee leading the investigation. In addition to this, unauthorized electronic devices are prohibited in the room. 

When the group of legislators entered the SCIF, they brought their unauthorized cellular devices along with them, which jeopardizes the sensitive information that is discussed in the secured facility.  

Their actions raised serious questions regarding the legality of their unauthorized entrance, pushing Democrats to take action. 

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, demanded that the top congressional law enforcement official act on the Republicans’ actions. He emphasized that they brought their cellphones in the room, which is a direct violation of the security protocols. 

In a letter to Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving, Thompson wrote: “I urge you to take House-wide action to remind all Members about the dangers of such reckless action and the potential national security risks of such behavior.”

While Democrats are furious with the Republicans’ behavior, Republicans are standing by their actions. They are accusing Democrats of lacking transparency on the very complex process of impeachment.

Republicans are arguing that testimony that may be used to impeach President Trump must be heard by all members. Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama said, “Show your face where we can all see the travesty that you are trying to foist on America and the degradation of our Republic that you’re engaged in.” 

To refute the claims being made by Republicans, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif, explained in a letter to fellow House members why closed-door testimony is important. 

In his letter, Schiff wrote: “It is of paramount importance to ensure that witnesses cannot coordinate their testimony with one another to match their description of events, or potentially conceal the truth.” He ensures that the transcripts of the interview will eventually be made public.

While the GOP’s violation of security protocol seems to be punishable by some criminal statues, members of Congress are protected under a Constitutional Clause. 

The Speech and Debate Clause, protects Members of Congress from judicial intervention in their legislative affairs. It grants members immunity for the “legislative acts” they carry out in Congress. 

This Clause may have serious implications on Congressional behavior as it allows for different interpretations of what constitutes a “legislative act.” Loose interpretation makes it difficult to enforce laws that would otherwise regulate members of Congress’ behavior. 

Although they may not be prosecuted, Members of Congress may be censured. Ultimately, it is up to the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate the violations and decide whether to censure a member. 

The violation of security protocols committed by the group of Republicans was unprecedented, showing the escalating tensions and partisanship that has come to define Congress.

Featured image: The Capitol Building of the United States of America located in Washington, D.C. (Unmodified photo by Lars Di Scenza used under a Creative Commons License. https://bit.ly/2rttQEt)

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