Time to shape up security clearance process, ship out long-term interim status
BY REP. RAJA KRISHNAMOORTHI (D-ILL.), OPINION CONTRIBUTOR — 03/12/18 10:20 AM EDT 12 THE VIEWS EXPRESSED BY CONTRIBUTORS ARE THEIR OWN AND NOT THE VIEW OF THE HILL
Jared Kushner’s continued presence in the White House raises significant questions about who should have access to our nation’s top secrets and how we prevent foreign adversaries from acquiring them. Mr. Kushner’s failed 16-month pursuit of a full security clearance combined with his access to the most closely-guarded of our intelligence until only weeks ago, is emblematic of the broader need to overhaul the White House security clearance approval process. Dozens of other administration officials have had long-term access to top secret materials through interim security clearances. Congress must reform the White House’s vetting process to safeguard our nation’s secrets by ending the current system for these temporary security clearances which is neither temporary, nor secure.
Interim security clearances exist to streamline the operation of federal agencies by allowing officials to continue serving the public as their full security clearances are being processed. This system has operated under the assumption that appointees are “innocent until proven guilty,” and assumes they’ll be approved for full clearances unless problems are found. Based on the reports coming of the White House, the Trump administration has used the interim security system as a means of sidestepping any potential issues that could have emerged. To take the most prominent example, the White House extended former Staff Secretary Rob Porter’s interim security clearance despite his history of domestic violence. They allowed him to continue to serve while ignoring the objections investigators would make if his full security clearance was ever adjudicated. Until a few weeks ago, numerous senior administration officials maintained access to top secret materials without full clearances through the interim system but none of these epitomize these problems so much as Jared Kushner.
Mr. Kushner’s security clearance problems began more than a year ago with his appointment as senior advisor by the president and the normally routine application process for a security clearance. Months into the administration, we learned that Mr. Kushner had failed to disclose his contacts with foreign agents, including Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and a Putin-aligned banker, as well as his campaign meeting in Trump Tower with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer and a former Soviet intelligence officer. These omissions were not isolated incidents–Mr. Kushner failed to disclose more than 100 such contacts on his SF-86 security clearance application.
During a hearing on Capitol Hill, I questioned Charles Phalen, the Director of the National Background Investigations Bureau, on whether he had ever come across a security clearance application with so many errors and omissions as Mr. Kushner’s to which he replied, never in his career had he ever witnessed anything close to it in scale. In fact, on these applications, even a handful of errors are treated with the utmost seriousness.
Contact with foreign nationals is a natural area of concern in evaluating an official’s qualifications for a security clearance and failing to disclose these contacts, or deliberately deceiving the U.S. government, only increases the vulnerability of the official. An undisclosed contact is not simply potential grounds for perjury, it’s potential blackmail material for foreign adversaries.
Another concern regarding Kushner’s security clearance status may relate to his family’s real estate business, Kushner Companies, in which Kushner still holds a stake and potential debt liabilities. The Kushner Companies have run up massive debts through its purchase and operation of the most expensive building ever purchased in New York City, 666 Fifth Avenue. While the precise scale and nature of these debts is not publicly known, they have proven sufficient to drive Kushner and his family to seek foreign partners for relief to keep the company afloat since American financial institutions have shown little interest.
The Kushner Companies has been involved in partnership talks with organizations ranging from the Chinese firm Anbang Insurance Group to Hamad bin Jassim, a member of the Qatari royal family. While state of Kushner’s family’s company is viewed by American investigators as cause for concern, it’s also reportedly viewed as a potential pressure point by representatives of the governments of the United Arab Emirates, China, Israel and Mexico who discussed ways to “manipulate” Kushner through the mortgage debt.
Despite his extensive vulnerabilities to foreign influence and blackmail, Kushner retained his access to the most classified American intelligence until after the Rob Porter news drew new scrutiny to the administration’s use of interim clearances. While his access has reportedly been downgraded, Kushner is the most public example of the White House’s widespread abuse of the process and even his downgrade only occurred in the midst of scandal.
At present, the administration is still allowed to self-regulate its use of the interim security clearance system despite repeatedly demonstrating its refusal to do so responsibly. Congress must now act to secure the White House’s clearance process and access to our most sensitive national secrets. The security clearance process must be changed immediately to bring transparency and accountability while preventing any president from freely allowing individuals vulnerable to foreign influence from accessing our country’s most important secrets.
Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat from Illinois, is a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Photo Credit: The Hill