By Michael Bastasch
May 7, 2018 - The Energy Department spent $1.2 million on a secure communications room during the Obama administration, illustrating just how much it costs to provide government officials with a secure line of communications, The Daily Caller News Foundation has learned.
The secure room, or SCIF, was built near former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz’s office so the agency head could quickly convene or join classified talks, two sources familiar with the matter told The Daily Caller News Foundation. Moniz’s $1.2 million SCIF, however, never made news or attracted Congress’ attention.
That’s not to say the Energy Department did anything wrong in building the costly SCIF. Both sources were clear the SCIF, though expensive, was necessary for the department to carry out its mission, which often involves classified communications about nuclear security.
The $43,000 Environmental Protection Agency officials spent on Administrator Scott Pruitt’s secure phone booth, or SCIF, however, has become part of a political push to remove him from office, despite costing 28 times less than Moniz’s SCIF.
News reports on Pruitt’s SCIF began surfacing back in March. Democratic lawmakers were so incensed by Pruitt’s $43,000 SCIF, they’ve asked for investigations into the matter, including asking the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to assess its legality. SCIFs are sound-proof rooms allowing officials to have secure talks — often regarding classified information.
Pruitt’s SCIF violated federal laws by not notifying Congress of expenditures for office furnishings over $5,000, GAO determined. GAO redefined a SCIF as an office furnishing. Pruitt told Congress in late April his secure phone booth was “not a SCIF,” contradicting what he told lawmakers in December.
Democrats used GAO’s report to label Pruitt’s 55-square-foot SCIF as “overspending.” Documents have since come out showing EPA career officials played a larger role in building the $43,000 SCIF than Pruitt’s team. Pruitt initially requested a secure line, not a SCIF, EPA said.
TheDCNF’s sources disagreed with GAO’s finding. One source had “never seen that broad of an interpretation” of federal laws to lump in SCIFs with office furnishings, they said. Counsel at federal agencies are probably scratching their heads at GAO’s new interpretation, the source added.
The SCIF allowed Pruitt to “make and receive calls to discuss sensitive information” while “conducting agency business,” EPA maintains. The booth was “analogous to other functional items an employee might require to perform his job duties such as a high speed computer, high speed copier/scanner, or television,” EPA said.
While lawmakers should scrutinize government spending, there was no outrage over the Energy Department’s building of a $1.2 million, 800-square-foot SCIF during Obama’s administration.
It’s unclear who requested the SCIF be built, but it was needed because existing SCIFs in Energy Department headquarters were far from the secretary’s office, sources told TheDCNF. Officials wanted Moniz and future secretaries to have quicker access to secure communications.
The SCIF is still in use by Energy Department staff, including Secretary Rick Perry, sources said. SCIF “is about the mission” at the department, both sources told TheDCNF.
The Energy Department is responsible for managing U.S. nuclear weapons and nuclear energy projects, so the secretary is often involved in classified communications.
While the SCIF may have been needed, why was it so expensive? That’s because SCIFs are expensive projects, requiring specialized technology to sound and signal-proof the secured room.
It’s a “totally secure building within a building,” one source told TheDCNF.
“SCIFs are about the most expensive construction” you can do, another source told said. SCIFs typically cost $1,000 per square foot to build across federal agencies. Costs are only increased when constructing a SCIF in an old building like the Energy Department’s Forrestal building.
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