Jurisprudence

Signal Failure

Donald Trump’s anything-goes security-clearance policy is putting the nation’s safety at risk.

Rob Porter, Donald Trump.
Former White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter with President Donald Trump in Bedminster, New Jersey, on Aug. 12.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

There is an intelligence emergency emanating from the White House. The news that Rob Porter worked as staff secretary for more than a year without a permanent clearance is synonymous with saying that there was a giant invitation to foreign intelligence services hanging on the steps of the White House. But Porter was not the only one in this position, and it is important to understand how these unusual White House practices place United States security at risk.

Why does the FBI refuse to authorize security clearance for people like Porter? It means that investigators—for more than a full year—could not conclude that he was “eligible, from a security standpoint, under national security standards for access to classified information.” In Porter’s case, the fact that he was hiding egregious problems, including a history of violence and a temporary restraining order against him, is probably why the FBI did not grant him a permanent clearance. They were not confident in his ability to handle classified information responsibly because he was highly vulnerable to foreign intelligence agencies’ recruitment.

Foreign intelligence operatives target as potential assets people in government who have access to sensitive information, exercise influence, and hide serious personal problems. Porter had all of those ingredients. An ideal foreign intelligence target was operating within the West Wing, reviewing highly classified papers that went to the president. Porter is not an anomaly but rather evidence of a systemwide failure.

The news about Porter’s interim clearance isn’t the first we’ve heard about a senior administration official who has failed to convince federal investigators that he can be trusted with classified information. Reporting from just a few weeks ago indicated that Jared Kushner is reading the President’s Daily Brief with an interim clearance. After the Porter news broke, we learned that 30–40 White House officials and political appointees are operating with interim clearances.

Let’s be clear–this is highly abnormal and wholly unprecedented. After each of these reports, the White House has tried to obfuscate reality and point to red herrings, like Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah’s recent excuse that the yearlong interim clearance isn’t that big of a deal because a clearance hasn’t been denied. That’s irrelevant disinformation.

Information is classified for a reason—professionals assess that its disclosure could be reasonably expected to cause identifiable or describable damage to national security. Different levels of classification correspond to the level of danger that a disclosure would have—the higher the classification, the higher the danger from a disclosure.

And that’s where we get to why we have security clearances. In order to be trusted to collect, consume, and discuss classified information, the Intelligence Community wants to be assured that individuals will not unintentionally or intentionally disclose the information. Other countries are actively trying to get access to our intelligence. It’s one of the oldest games in the book, and people with access to classified information are priority targets. So the IC wants to be sure that clearance holders won’t be easily manipulated by well-trained foreign intelligence agents.

Manipulation and exploitation become a lot easier when a target has secrets of their own—undisclosed or misreported contacts with foreign nationals, unethical business ties, affairs, drug use, gambling debt—anything an individual doesn’t want coming out publicly. The massive Chinese hack of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management is believed to have been aimed at uncovering sensitive personal information that the Chinese could use to blackmail U.S. government employees. Soviet operatives during the Cold War, and Russian intelligence services up through the present, have used kompromat—or compromising material—to blackmail targets into doing what they want. Rob Porter’s two ex-wives’ allegations of domestic abuse definitely fall into the kompromat category—he didn’t want these allegations being made public. (He resigned once they became so.)

It is true that Porter had an interim clearance, but according to the U.S. government, an interim security clearance is based on the completion of a minimum set of investigative requirements and is granted on a temporary basis, pending the completion of the full investigative requirements. It is most likely that Porter and Kushner’s interim clearances were granted before the personal security investigation got very far. The fact remains that federal investigators could not, for more than a year now, come to the decision that neither Porter, nor Kushner, nor any of the other 30–40 staff members with interim clearances could be trusted with the nation’s greatest secrets.

Just take a moment to think: We have had federal investigators unable to adjudicate eligibility for access to classified information for more than a year, and prime foreign intelligence targets, with personally compromising secrets, roaming the halls of the White House digesting classified information.

If the White House does not clear up this ongoing breach in handling national security information, it will have downstream consequences. Over many decades, the government has built an internal culture of patriotism and professionalism around the handling of national secrets. To be sure, there have been lapses in all administrations, but a measure of effectiveness has been the response once those lapses are discovered. The White House is a central hub for this system to work properly. The systemic failures in the White House, including any undeserved special waivers from the president, threaten to erode the norms that help protect classified information. It is time for this chief of staff, or a new one, to remedy the intelligence emergency emanating from within the White House itself. It is important to understand that the scale of the problem is not just about individuals like Porter and Kushner but also includes the collateral costs for the internal system as a whole.

More than just sending a smoke signal to foreign intelligence operatives hunting for opportunities for recruitment, this latest set of reporting will undoubtedly also put more pressure on already strained relationships with foreign intelligence partners. The world now knows that people who federal investigators haven’t deemed eligible to handle classified intelligence are, well, handling classified intelligence. This should logically lead our foreign partners, who are highly rational actors, to share less—why provide highly sensitive and closely held information to the United States when it could end up in the hands of several individuals who could not get approval from federal investigators for anything more than an interim clearance for more than a year? The answer is pretty clear—you’d be irrational to share as much.

Our intelligence partnerships were already under stress. As I detailed last week, our intelligence partners have been concerned about potential ties between Trump and Russia and the president’s mishandling of other information, such as his disclosure of Israeli intelligence to the Russian foreign minister. Then, add on his decision to declassify the Nunes memo, despite the objections of his intelligence community, before ever reading the document. With this newest fuel added to the fire, it is likely that we will be getting less potentially lifesaving intelligence.

Our national security depends on a system of mutually beneficial relationships with intelligence partners in the world. We fill in gaps for one another—where we have better signals intelligence, for example, our partners may have better human intelligence, and vice versa. These relationships depend on trust, and our track record over the past 12 months is as embarrassing as it is dangerous.

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Samantha Vinograd

Samantha Vinograd served on the National Security Council during the Obama administration and served as deputy U.S. Treasury attaché to Iraq during the Bush administration.