Check Out The Government's Spy-Proof Conference Rooms

President Obama in a SCIF in 2012.  Wikimedia  image

President Obama in a SCIF in 2012. Wikimedia image

Some of the most guarded conversations in Washington take place inside spy-proof vaults known as Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities (that’s SCIF for short – pronounced “skiff.”) These hardened boxes are built to demanding specifications that require dedicated electrical, communications and data systems, and rapid response security details. The walls are lined with acoustic attenuation technology to hamper the collection of audio intelligence.  

“Very loud sounds within the SCIF, such as loud singing, brass music, or a radio at full volume, can be heard with the human ear faintly or not at all outside of the SCIF.” –SCIF technical specifications

SCIFs range in size from single rooms to entire floors (as is the case on the seventh floor of the State Department). Some of them look like bank vaults and others could pass for an ordinary government office. Top secret security clearances are mandatory for admission, and everybody –lawmakers and generals included- surrender their electronic devices at the door.

There are numerous SCIFs on Capitol Hill for the congressional committees that oversee the military and intelligence community. Before 9/11 many of these meetings took place in an out of the way office on the attic level of the Capitol. The Capitol Visitor Center, completed in 2008, added larger underground SCIFs for both the House and Senate.

Rep. Peter King described one of these spaces as "just like any other room, but it takes a weight lifter to open the front door. It's similar to the Situation Room in the White House.”

"SCIF size has become a measure of status in Top Secret America, or at least in the Washington region of it. 'In D.C., everyone talks SCIF, SCIF, SCIF,' said Bruce Paquin, who moved to Florida from the Washington region several years ago to start a SCIF construction business. 'They've got the penis envy thing going. You can't be a big boy unless you're a three-letter agency and you have a big SCIF.' – The Washington Post’s Top Secret America Investigation

Wall specifications in a SCIF. NAVFAC image

Construction of these Capitol SCIFs was no easy feat. The State Department, in its history of the Cold War recalls that “In 1985 the United States halted construction on its new embassy building [in Moscow] because of security compromises in the materials being used, only completing construction in 2000 by using an American company and American materials.” This experience has also shaped the SCIF construction process, and they can only be built by DOD-accredited contractors employing US citizens. All “finishing work” (“work that includes closing up wall structures; installing, floating, taping and sealing wallboards; installing trim, chair rail, molding, and floorboards; painting; etc.”) is done by workers with Top Secret clearances.

Adamo Construction, a California-based SCIF contractor, describes a few of the other requirements on their website:

  • “All telephone, electrical power, security systems, data and emergency systems equipment must be dedicated to and contained within the SCIF. Any utility that enters the SCIF should terminate in the SCIF and not traverse through the space. Where the conduit for any of these systems penetrate the SCIF perimeter, they must be treated to minimize the chance of compromise. Fire sprinkler systems and other metallic materials that penetrate SCIF perimeter must be grounded or use dielectric unions. Additional shielding or isolation is often required to prevent interference or electronic eavesdropping through electromagnetic or radio frequencies.
  • There are very specific requirements for ductwork. For example, if ductwork for mechanical operations has openings in the SCIF larger than 96 square inches, they must be equipped with steel man bars that are ½-inch in diameter and 6 inches on center each way, welded at the intersections, with inspection ports inside the SCIF. The openings, the ductwork and the duct breaks must also have special sections inserted to secure audio and electronic emanations from leaving the SCIF space.
  • In most cases the perimeter doors must utilize two access control technologies. The first one for operational day-to-day use, and the second for high security lock up when personnel leave the space unattended. The door and frame assembly must not only meet local building and fire/life safety requirements, but must also achieve the same specified Sound Transmission Class (STC) rating as the perimeter wall assemblies of the facility.
  • There are also requirements for UL2050 certified installers and UL2050 approved components to be used for the Intrusion Detection Systems (IDS).”

The result of these stringent standards are some of the most expensive office space in the city. A Congressional Research Service phone interview with a SCIF contractor revealed that SCIFs cost “two to 10 times the cost of conventional office space, depending on features required,” coming out to roughly $200 - $500 per square foot.

Related: Tunneling Under the Russian Embassy