In April of this year it was reported that 25 Trump administration officials were granted security clearances against the recommendation of White House Personnel Security Office. The clearances are divided into the categories confidential, secret, and top secret. Applicants are thoroughly vetted through a SF-86 form, which inquires about who an applicant knows, where they’ve lived and what foreign contacts they’ve had. The rationale behind this digging is to ensure individuals with access to the most sensitive informational are not susceptible to blackmail or coercion through personal or financial entanglements. According to former CIA intelligence officer Andrew Bakaj, the background checks protect “people or entities that we rely on to gather information and intelligence — and the information that is gathered.” Bakaj noted in the same NPR article that disclosure of top secret information can carry grave consequences.
Whistleblower Tricia Newbold set an important precedent by becoming the first member of the Trump White House to take allegation of misconduct to Congress with her name behind them. Newbold is a career government employee who began working in the Executive Office at the end of Bill Clinton’s second term in 2000. She rose to the level of White House adjudications manager, tasked with determining which employees should be granted which clearances. In January she was suspended two weeks, without pay, for what she alleges was retaliation for raising issues regarding certain security clearances.
The most glaring example of questionable security clearance is the President’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner. The Washington Post reported in February that Trump ordered then-Chief of Staff John Kelly to issue Kushner a security clearance over the concerns of officials. There is no known precedent for a president interfering in this way. In filling out his SF-86 form, Kushner omitted his involvement in the infamous ‘’Trump Tower’’ meeting, a meeting with the head of a state owned Russian bank. Kushner made more than 40 revisions to his initial financial disclosures. Most disturbing amongst his omissions was the back-channel he and former National Security Director, Michael Flynn, allegedly tried to create with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Given the administration’s lack of transparency and the president’s overly favorable position towards Russia, this allegation was a warranted red flag.
If the security clearances began and ended with entrance to the White House, Trump circumventing the process could be viewed through the lens of nepotism or cronyism, insidious and unfair, but not a detriment to national security. The access to top secret information that the clearances grant make it a more serious matter and the issue likely should have received more scrutiny. Trump has often been dismissive of the intelligence community. At times he directly contradicts their findings, never offering any evidence of his contrarian assertions. His hubris should not be taken lightly. Gathering information concerning potential threats to the country is the most essential function of the intelligence community. Safeguarding this information, the means through which it was acquired and the people who acquired it ,are critical to ensure such activity can continue unimpeded. When such safeguards are violated, it endangers the American intelligence community and by extension the country.
Photo by NASA