Trump and National Security
Donald Trump contends that he is keenly concerned with matters of national security. So much so, that he has had a plan drawn up to impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminum on that basis – although economists and commerce experts have exposed the false premise and the potential catastrophe of such a move.
But when it comes to shielding classified information from individuals not qualified to access such information, Trump has demonstrably no concerns.
As was reported in recent days, President Trump’s Son-in-law and White House Senior policy advisor, Jared Kushner’s interim (meaning provisional) security clearance for access to material classified as “Top Secret”, has been downgraded to the level of “Secret”.
Security clearance levels, privileges and conditions
The distinction between secret and top secret is not as mundane as it might appear. The background investigation process involved with the “Top Secret” clearance delves more considerably into issues of potential or existing “foreign influence”. The other difference between the two clearances deal with the nature of the information the clearance holder has access to. One with a TS/SCI clearance is allowed access to classified material, including intelligence reports and briefings, that can cause grave damage to national security if released to unauthorized sources.
There is a separate, but related clearance that neither Kushner or his wife should possess on an interim basis and has profound implications regarding their close access to the president. That is the SCI, or sensitive compartmented information.
SCI, as outlined by ClearanceJobs.com, “is a subset of Classified National Intelligence encompassing all things intelligence-related such as intelligence sources, intelligence methods, or intelligence analytical processes and administrated according to requirements the Director of Central Intelligence establishes.”
The problem with allowing Jared Kushner to have had access to classified documents during the period of time that the FBI was still in the process of investigating his background and had not submitted a final report to the Justice Department and White House – is that Kushner could conceivably have mishandled the information in ways that could have critical impact on national security.
A White House rampant with provisional and incomplete security clearances
Kushner’s situation, as it was reported by NBC News, was by no means an isolated incident with regard to open ended clearances. They learned that as of November of last year, as many as 130 other West Wing staff had not received permanent clearances, with 47 of them being individuals who at one time or another directly report to the president. Recently dismissed White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter, was the most notable, outside of Kushner, among that group.
Policy established in recent years, crafted in response to the Edward Snowden debacle, limits the time an individual with access to sensitive intelligence can remain in interim clearance status to one year, with the possibility of a six month extension. When asked why the White House has allowed an already very reasonable time period to lapse, William Henderson, a retired federal clearance investigator, and president of Federal Clearance Assistance Service, responded, “The government routinely ignores its own requirements.”
Of equal or greater concern is that the president has the ultimate discretion to arbitrarily bestow a final clearance upon a White House aide or advisor, even if the FBI, the Pentagon, the Director of National Intelligence or the Justice Department still has serious concerns or solid grounds to recommend otherwise. With the chronic lapses in judgment shown by this president, many are calling for that policy to be amended by Congress.
NBC news contributor and former CIA and DOD Chief of Staff Jeremy Bash stated in a February interview that “It is highly unusual for senior White House officials to have only temporary security clearances a year into an administration, it means they are not trustworthy and they could be black mailed.”
Kushner’s problematic clearance process
Jared Kushner in the process of applying for the security clearance, had serially omitted important details on the SF-86 forms regarding his interactions and dealings with foreign officials and individuals tied to foreign governments as well as failing to provide full disclosure of the nature and extent of his business dealings, investments and real estate holdings.
The unusual delay in extending a permanent clearance of any level, Secret or Top Secret, to Kushner, could well have to do with the FBI discovering deception, withholding of material facts or his having actually lied on the clearance application and during interviews. In fact, it has been reported that in Kushner’s initial SF-86 application, he failed to disclose, in the section where it is required to list any and all foreign individuals with which he has had meetings, communication or dealings with – over 100 names.
This was over the course of three revisions to the form, which suggests that the FBI investigators had already determined who the parties were that Kushner did not identify in the initial and subsequent submissions.
Kushner could be prosecuted by the Justice Department on these grounds. However, given the litany of suspicious activity and strong indications of conflicts of interest, plus dealings with officials of foreign governments, there may have been pressure brought to bear – possibly from the Oval Office, to head such a prosecution off at the pass.
Now that Kushner has a downgraded clearance with a portfolio of advising the president on Middle East policy strategy, it seems absurd for him to even be working inside the administration. Ivanka Trump’s interim clearance status is equally dubious.
Mark Zaid, a Washington lawyer who specializes in national security told Vox that while lengthy timelines for final clearances are not remarkably rare, he did say that ”it is unusual to see SCI interim clearances for that long, because these are people who have access to the highest levels of classified information, including the president’s daily security brief.”
Why Kushner’s failed clearance process is risky, negligent and incompetent
The bottom line take away from Kushner’s over a year long and ultimately failed process to obtain a permanent security clearance, is two-fold.
One, a close advisor to the president has already been viewing and handling top secret reports, memos and documents, including highly sensitive intelligence about nations that he and his company have actual or prospective business dealings with. What Kushner knows that he should not have been allowed to know, cannot be retrieved. There is no do over for that.
Second, as illustrated by the Portergate scandal, it is clear that no one in the chain of authority in the Executive branch, from the president, to Chief of Staff John Kelly, to White House counsel Don McGahn and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has acted on their responsibility to safeguard critical national security information.
The likely reasons behind this will become apparent when, in an update to this report, we delve into Kushner’s activities before the election, during the transition and during the year and three months he has been operating in the West Wing.