EPA’s Pruitt Says “Hard to Predict” How Much Time He Spends in Secure Phone Booth
WASHINGTON – Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt couldn’t say how much of his work to safeguard public health and natural resources he conducts from his new $25,000 secure phone booth. But at his first congressional hearing since taking over the agency, he insisted it's essential.
At last week's hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on the mission of the EPA, Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., pressed Pruitt on how often and why he uses the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF.
"What percentage of your work would you say is conducted in this SCIF?" asked DeGette.
Pruitt: "It’s hard to predict that, Congresswoman."
Is it 50 percent, 75 percent, DeGette asked? Pruitt couldn’t say.
DeGette: "And did you do that because part of the EPA’s mission involves classified information?”
Pruitt: “Yes, ma'am, part of that, but also communications with the White House. There are secure conversations that need to take place at times. . . . It’s used for secure communications that need to take place at the office.”
SCIFs are common in the office suites of cabinet level officials who head agencies central to law enforcement and the national security of the United States, but this was the first one installed in the office of the EPA administrator. The Washington Post’s Brady Dennis reported in September that Pruitt's SCIF was a customized version, with "a lot of modifications," that cost several times more than a typical model.
Dennis reported that according to former agency employees, the EPA has long maintained a SCIF on a separate floor from the administrator’s office, where officials with proper clearances can go to share information classified as secret. But in November, Pruitt told the Post's James Hohmann that wasn't convenient.
"It's kind of hard to tell someone that's reaching out that, to have a confidential secure conversation, I've got to go down two floors, and over two levels, and I'll call you back," Pruitt said. "That's just not . . . how things should work."
EWG President Ken Cook said that "how things should work" is that the conversations and meetings of the nation's chief environmental officer should be open and transparent.
“It sounds like Pruitt spends more time in his secret phone booth plotting the dismantling of the EPA than tweens do texting," said Cook. "If you’re going to tear down the nation’s public health and environmental protections at the behest of polluters, at the very least you should have to walk down two floors to do it.”