Presidential Aide Rob Porter was recently forced out after the public learned about credible claims of domestic violence against him made by two ex-wives. The Trump Administration was aware of the issue for at least seven months prior but took no action until there was a public outcry. One of the reasons the White House knew about the allegations was because Rob Porter was not able to get his Security Clearance. Due to the story, the public also learned that the Trump Administration has a significant problem with obtaining security clearances. As widely reported, over 130 White House staffers and senior administration officials do not have proper security clearances over one year into the administration. This is a dangerous and unacceptable threat to national security. Even worse, anyone working in the White House gets expedited handling of their clearance. The fact that so many members of the Trump administration still cannot obtain clearances is most disturbing and speaks volumes about potential problems in their backgrounds. By comparison, no previous administration has ever had so many individuals lacking proper clearances, nor would any of them have accepted such a situation.
Security clearances are a critical component of effective, competent government as well as crucial to national security. They serve several essential functions designed to protect the nation by safeguarding national security and other vital information and by protecting those serving the nation in embassies and combat zones around the world. Improper release of information places lives at risk, hurts international relations, and exposes the United States to attack or exploitation. Remember the old cliché, “Loose lips sink ships…” Adversaries will go to great lengths to obtain all types of information, often for nefarious purposes. They resort to blackmail, bribery, and other means. A complete security clearance investigation identifies potential areas of concern that make an individual susceptive to such tactics or more likely to divulge information through disloyalty. From a more positive angle, those in power often may not know about certain aspects of a nominee that could negatively impact their performance or access to protected information. On the negative side, some leaders may choose to overlook fallibility of nominees and the clearance process needs to be the honest broker to properly assess the nominee. The key is that this process is paramount to national security.
Every member of the White House staff, no mater what their position, requires at least some level of security clearance. Many require Top Secret or higher and to get that level of clearance requires a significant amount of information in the application and considerable investigation after submission. It is a necessarily cumbersome process to ensure proper adjudication of security clearance applications. Clearance provides access and the greater one’s access, the greater the potential peril from misuse or negligence. Clearance adjudications take time, much more so for higher level clearances, and the process takes more time due to budget cuts negatively affecting manpower and resources. Clearances for Defense Department personnel work the same way. In my military career, anyone who did not have a valid, current clearance was immediately re-assigned pending resolution. Anyone who could not obtain or maintain a clearance was terminated. At no time did an individual who did not have the correct clearance perform duties or access information that required the clearance. That is the requirement throughout the government. Individuals in any agency, including the White House staff, must hold the proper level clearance at all times to perform those duties and access information classified at those levels.
Much to the detriment of our national security, many members of the Trump administration were handling information classified for security levels above the clearances they had. Rob Porter, where this story began, routinely handled extremely sensitive information, classified above top secret, without having the proper clearance. Jared Kushner still does not hold a proper security clearance. Nevertheless, throughout the President’s tenure, he has been reading the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) from the Intelligence community. This document is extremely sensitive with very narrow distribution. Because President Trump refuses to read, he sends the document to Jared Kushner daily for him to read. For Kushner’s other duties involving national security he routinely accesses other extremely sensitive data, all without a proper clearance. While Porter and Kushner are not alone, they represent two examples of the serious breaches of security undertaken daily by this White House. Porter was clearly susceptible to blackmail by anyone threatening to expose allegations or evidence of domestic violence against him (before it became public knowledge). Kushner is highly susceptible to blackmail or bribery by Russia, China, and other adversaries through failing business and financial connections. There are plenty of other examples in this White House.
For most of 2016, the Trump campaign held rallies including raucous chants of “Lock Her Up” referencing Hillary Clinton’s negligent handling of some classified emails because of her use of a private server. Trump and his surrogates made extensive use of Clinton’s reckless conduct, claiming it made her so unfit for office she should not be allowed to even run. Over a year into this administration, Trump and his White House staff have committed ongoing, far more egregious security violations. Kushner reading the PDB may be the most outrageous. If the President chooses not to read this brief, arguably the most important document there is, there are far better suited surrogates to read it for him such as individuals with experience and ability in national security matters and who have been vetted by Congressional confirmations and security clearance investigations. Putting aside the outrageous hypocrisy, this poses a significant threat to the United States and needs to be corrected immediately.
Chief of Staff Kelly initially blamed the personnel office for the problem, claiming they did not pass along the information about Rob Porter and others. We later learned that the administration knew about the initial results of the Porter investigation in March, a full report in July, and answers to specific follow-up questions they asked in November! So, the administration clearly knew, especially at the point where they asked specific follow-up questions. Chief of Staff Kelly then stated they would change their procedures, specifically ending their practice of allowing individuals to operate without proper clearances. If this is true, many individuals, including Kushner, would have to leave the White House. At a minimum, he would have to be reassigned to much different duties. While he may be able to obtain a lower level clearance, it is highly unlikely he could legitimately receive the highest-level clearance which is necessary to continue his currently assigned duties and to read the PDB. Maybe that is Kelly’s plan…