An ongoing security clearance debacle that has reached into the highest levels of the Trump administration since Day One has now claimed victims.
White House officials, including Senior Adviser to the President Jared Kushner, and four Commerce Department appointees had their interim security clearances revised or revoked since Friday, resulting in clearance downgrades for some and outright firings for others.
While the fallout since Feb. 23, which has included Kushner’s access now being restricted to the secret level, has been the most high-profile event in the saga, processing on-time security clearance requests has long been an issue within the federal government.
According to a December 2017 Government Accountability Office report, while 59 percent of agencies were able to meet timeliness objectives for top secret/sensitive compartmented information clearances in 2012, that number dropped sharply to 10 percent in 2016. In fact, in 2016 it took an average of 168 to 208 days to complete top secret clearance processes.
The personnel security clearance process is so backlogged that GAO added it to the High-Risk List of areas in need of broad transformation or reform in January 2018.
According to a Feb. 16 memo, originally obtained by the Washington Post, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has spent recent months working to reform the clearance process by prioritizing timely returns and predictive timelines for investigations with the FBI. In addition, Kelly said that the White House has been working with the Personnel Security Office to “review and improve the structure, processes, and resources allocated to the PSO,” through the implementation of closer oversight.
The memo also officially discontinues any interim clearances that have been pending since June 1, 2017, or before, well past the 208-day average for top secret clearances discovered by the GAO report and the reason for the downgrades of Kushner’s and other official’s clearances.
Future interim clearances will only be granted for a 180-day period, with an option to extend them for another 90 days if “no significant derogatory information that would call into question whether interim status is appropriate has been discovered.”
It is the issue of derogatory information that prompted many of the White House’s clearance policy changes, according to the memo, as domestic abuse allegations against former staff secretary Rob Porter, who had been working under an interim clearance, “focused immense attention on a clearance process that has been in place for multiple administrations.”
The memo also announced the formation of a working group to study and streamline the clearance process across the executive branch. Group members include: Kelly; Counsel to the President Don McGahn; National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster; Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations Joseph Hagin; Attorney General Jeff Sessions; Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats; FBI Director Chris Wray; and the heads of the Department of Defense and CIA.
In the interim, Kushner and other officials will have to rely on secret clearance levels to do their work, a potential impediment as Kushner in particular has responsibilities for negotiating peace within the Middle East and will be denied access to certain security briefings on the topic.
Kelly, however, expressed his belief in Kushner’s ability to proceed with such responsibilities regardless of his clearance level in a Feb. 20, 2018, statement:
“I will not comment on anybody’s specific security clearance situation or go beyond the memo released last week. As I told Jared days ago, I have full confidence in his ability to continue performing his duties in his foreign policy portfolio including overseeing our Israeli-Palestinian peace effort and serving as an integral part of our relationship with Mexico. Everyone in the White House is grateful for these valuable contributions to furthering the president’s agenda. There is no truth to any suggestion otherwise.”
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.