A Closer Look at the Senate’s Procedures for Releasing Classified Information under S. Res. 400

As discussed in my last post, there is (or should be) no serious controversy regarding the Senate’s authority to release classified information unilaterally pursuant to Section 8 of S. Res. 400. Yet the full Senate has apparently never taken a vote to release information under Section 8, perhaps in part because of that section’s elaborate procedural requirements.

At the outset, SSCI must make a determination, by a formal vote, “that the public interest would be served by such disclosure.” Senator Ribbicoff observed that this provision, embodied in Section 8(a), “establishes the basic rule that the committee may disclose information where disclosure is in the public interest.” CRS Legislative History of S. Res. 400 at 88.

Under Section 8(b), however, SSCI must take additional steps where the disclosure involves “any information which has been classified under established security procedures, which has been submitted to it by the Executive branch, and which the Executive branch requests be kept secret.” Such information may only be released pursuant to the process further described in Section 8(b).

The first step in this process is for SSCI to notify and consult with the Senate Majority and Minority Leaders regarding the vote to disclose classified information. The rule specifies that this consultation must take place prior to providing formal notice to the President. The purpose of this step, which was not added to Section 8 until 2004 (by S. Res. 445), is presumably to afford the Senate leadership with an opportunity to resolve the situation before formal notice to the President is given.

Once the President is notified, a five-day clock starts ticking. After five days have expired, SSCI may publicly disclose the information that was the subject of the vote, unless the President properly objects within this period. To do so, he must, “personally” and “in writing,” notify SSCI of his objection to disclosure, provide his reasons therefor, and certify “that the threat to the national interest of the United States posed by such disclosure is of such gravity that it outweighs any public interest in the disclosure.”

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