The recent history of security clearances in the Trump White House has raised eyebrows.
Jared Kushner’s clearance application contained errors and omissions of a type “never seen” by some who are close to the approval process for clearances.
Another recent headline saw questions raised about Rob Porter — the former White House staff secretary — and why he was granted temporary security clearance despite FBI warnings about domestic abuse allegations in his past.
It is the second story that seems to have gotten the necessary parties interested in overhauling White House security clearance policy. Let’s take a look at what we can expect next.
What Effect Will This Have on White House Intelligence?
General John Kelly, the current White House Chief of Staff, has outlined his intentions to broaden the restrictions on which types of classified intelligence the interim security clearance-holders are allowed to access.
And although Porter’s story was certainly a tipping point, Kelly cites a colorful history of White House staff members who have handled highly classified information without permanent security clearances. Any staff member with a pending background check more recent than June 2017 will see their SCI-level privileges stripped from them.
The aforementioned Jared Kushner still does not have a permanent security clearance, despite this administration being more than a year old and despite his continued presence at high-level government meetings. Kushner could be one of the first to see his access revoked under these new rules.
With respect to elevating concerns over the content of an applicant’s character, as the FBI attempted to do in Porter’s case, Kelly has outlined plans to require the Federal Bureau of Investigation to, in his words, “hand-deliver” background checks for potential staff additions and place a special emphasis on “significant derogatory information” about those employees.
Critics have been vocal about Kelly’s proposed changes to the application process. One attorney with experience in security clearances and FOIA requests, Mark Zaid, called Kelly’s memorandum “troubling” and asserts that the application and approval process “worked fine before this Administration.” The failure, according to Zaid and other experts, is a cultural one rather than a procedural one.
For example, anybody who is familiar with the Rob Porter situation knows that the question is not “whether” Trump’s White House knew about the allegations against him, but “when.” The next conclusion is that high-level staff in the White House had as much information as they needed to draw actionable conclusions about Porter’s fitness for government work.
How Will This Affect the Release of Digital Information From the White House?
It’s clear that the digital frontier brings challenges that might never have perfectly acceptable solutions. Every safeguard we dream up to fight against the access or dissemination of sensitive information reduces transparency on some level, even as it makes important information safer. Making changes to how government contractors handle even unclassified information is a critical point of interest these days.
The question is whether Kelly’s memorandum and proposed changes are just to save face or whether they will actually succeed in changing something the American people want changed.
Nevertheless, Kelly’s plan would also require that temporary security clearances older than 180 days expire automatically or be extended for an optional 90 days if background checks come back clean. It is not uncommon for security clearance approvals in a new administration to take as long as Kushner’s has. But given the very long list of responsibilities handed to him by his father-in-law, Donald Trump, these new restrictions are certain to change how he performs his work — if he can perform it at all.
In fact, part of the reason so many White House staff members have seen lengthy delays with their clearance approvals is that this administration has a higher percentage of first-time civil servants than previous administrations. And, ultimately, the president of the United States can grant security clearance to whomever they want, further complicating things.
Kelly has it part right: There was either a failure of communication or failure of judgment. Some of the fixes he describes should make it easier for concerned parties to elevate their concerns about appointees and applicants to sensitive roles. But some of the detractors are right too: The process would have worked as intended if somebody in the Trump White House had reacted appropriately when the FBI voiced their concerns about Rob Porter.
The only institution in America at this time with the power to strip the president of his security-clearance-granting prerogatives is Congress. So even if Trump or persons within his circle “dropped the ball” on Porter, it’s fairly clear that checks and balances aren’t quite what they should be when it comes to this particular process.
The FBI has had recent problems of their own, including the loss of personal data on thousands of employees in 2016. However, it’s clear that if their role in preventing stories like Porter’s wasn’t taken seriously by the Trump administration, it was for other reasons entirely.
The stakes are high, as we’ve seen. The Trump White House has seen a stream of leaks to journalists and other parties. It isn’t hard to see how automatic time-outs for temporary security clearances and limited access to highly classified documents could help reduce the number of information leaks this administration has weathered, which are either unprecedented or merely statistically interesting, depending on whom you ask.
General John F. Kelly is right to want to protect the sanctity of high-stakes intelligence. He’s applying what he knows of military culture to the “problem” of information porosity in this current White House. What the rest of us can’t ever forget, though, is that some information needs to be leaked.
Breaking state-mandated silence to bring wrongdoing to light is the sort of revolutionary spirit Americans are supposed to value.
Nobody wants a less-transparent American government, but some of the growing pains we’re seeing now are the result of entrusting its operation to people who don’t know how it works. Some of these people have ulterior motives, but many others do not.
Kelly, who believes digital information leaks are tantamount to treason, proposes making life more difficult for both types.