The Slatest

The Security Clearance Situation in the White House Is Bonkers

Don McGahn arrives at Trump Tower, January 9, 2017 in New York City.
Don McGahn arrives at Trump Tower on Jan. 9, 2017, in New York City.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

White House staff secretary and alleged domestic abuser Rob Porter was not the only White House official to handle classified secrets for months on end without permanent security clearance.

NBC News reported on Wednesday that as of November, 130 political appointees working on President Donald Trump’s staff had not yet been permanently cleared—among them White House counsel Don McGahn.

The White House Counsel’s office typically plays a key role in adjudicating security clearances and managing top government secrets. So McGahn would have potentially been charged with determining who gets to see classified information—without having been fully cleared himself.

According to NBC News, McGahn obtained a “top secret” security clearance—but not the higher-level “Sensitive Compartmented Information” clearance. That higher-level clearance would have been required to handle the kinds of information typically seen in a White House Counsel’s Office, says Andrew McCanse Wright, a former associate counsel in President Obama’s White House Counsel’s Office.

“A whole lot of the information that goes through the White House is at the SCI level because it involves things like sources and methods” of gathering intelligence, McCanse Wright told me. “If you’re talking about Don McGahn reviewing signals intelligence related to the Russia investigation, I would assume any of that stuff is going to be above top secret clearance. When you get into those other categories, we’re talking about the most precious secrets we have.”

The FBI investigates high-ranking officials before clearing them to handle government secrets, in part to weed out people vulnerable to blackmail, for instance over a history of domestic violence.

It’s not known for certain why McGahn and more than 130 others—including Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, social media director Dan Scavino, and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders—had not been able to obtain security clearance 10 months into Trump’s administration. It’s conceivable that there was a backlog of investigations at the FBI, or processing issues in the White House security personnel office. It would have had to have been quite a backlog, though!

The White House has given multiple accounts of why Porter was allowed to stay on the job despite his inability to gain security clearance. At first, officials said the investigation of Porter was still in progress. FBI Director Christopher Wray refuted that account under oath earlier this week, saying that the bureau had closed its file on Porter in January. The administration subsequently claimed the White House personnel security office had yet to make a final recommendation on Porter’s clearance.

Former White House officials say the personnel office plays a merely logistical role in the clearance process, passing along information from the FBI to the White House counsel and the chief of staff for a final call. The White House has refused to say what McGahn and chief of staff John Kelly knew, and when they knew it, about the Porter investigation.

On Tuesday, another senior White House official resigned because he was unable to receive a permanent security clearance. Last week, meanwhile, a speechwriter—who reportedly did not need security clearance—resigned over domestic abuse allegations.

Through it all, the clearance process is potentially being overseen by a man who himself hadn’t been permanently cleared as of a few months ago. “I’m in shock that the White House counsel himself [apparently] does not have a final clearance,” McCanse Wright said. “That’s crazy.”

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