Dozens of Trump officials still lack full security clearance
Posted February 9, 2018 12:51 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Thirty to 40 White House officials and administration political appointees are still operating without full security clearances, including senior adviser to President Donald Trump Jared Kushner and -- until recently -- White House staffer Rob Porter, according to a US official and a source familiar with the situation.
The White House claims that the backlog of interim security clearances is a procedural consequence of the review process carried out by the FBI and White House Office of Security, which can take time to complete.
But several sources, including intelligence officials who have served previous Democratic and GOP administrations, describe the backlog as very unusual and make clear that the process should have been completed after a year in office.
Asked on Thursday why so many White House officials were still operating on interim clearances, White House spokesman Raj Shah said he wasn't able to discuss specifics of the clearance process.
One current and one former US official said the backlog could indicate that there are remaining questions or obstacles from the intelligence community and law enforcement conducting the review.
But unanswered questions do not necessarily indicate that law enforcement has identified an issue that would prevent that individual from ultimately obtaining a clearance, according to Mark Zaid, an attorney who often represents clients in clearance cases.
According to Zaid, the fact that some executive branch officials are still on interim clearances is not surprising given that most of the individuals joining this administration have more complicated backgrounds than is typical and that would delay formal adjudication.
In prior administrations, most of the people who were brought on to fill key executive branch positions had previously been cleared for government jobs, Zaid said, adding that most of those individuals in the Trump administration have never worked in government or did so a long time ago.
The fact that many of these officials are very wealthy and worked in areas of finance with ties to foreign nationals and governments would also contribute to a delay in the clearance process, he said.
Several officials -- including Kushner -- have also made various paperwork errors while filling out forms required as part of the check.
In October, Charles Phalen, the director of the National Background Investigations Bureau, told lawmakers he has "never seen that level of mistakes" when asked about numerous omissions in Kushner's security clearance application.
A spokesman for Kushner did not respond to a request for comment about Kushner's security clearance.
A recent GAO study found that broadly throughout the government the security clearance investigation backlog was already at 190,000 cases in August 2014 and skyrocketed to more than 709,000 by September 2017.
"At the end of the day, if we are going to solve this problem, we are going to have to fix the way we issue clearances, by both getting faster and better at the process of vetting and clearing people, or ultimately denying people clearances and moving them on to other opportunities, but the current challenge cannot go unaddressed for much longer," said Jamil N. Jaffer, the founder of the National Security Institute at George Mason University Law School and a former associate counsel to President George W. Bush.
The FBI conducts background investigations for clearances up to top secret at the request of government agencies -- including the White House.
It then provides the information gathered as part of the investigation -- without a formal recommendation -- to the requesting agency.
That agency will then decide whether to issue a clearance based upon the information gathered.
While the FBI runs the background check for White House staff, the Office of Presidential Personnel still must sign off on the investigation to move the process forward.
But if that paperwork is delayed, then the interim clearance would stay in place.
One source told CNN that if OPP processes the paperwork that a clearance has been declined, that person can no longer access sensitive material. It also makes it extraordinarily difficult to move that individual to another agency that requires clearance, the source said.
Information in the security review is protected by privacy laws, so generally -- at least in other parts of government -- a boss would be notified of an adverse decision on a clearance but would not be given the reasons why, according to Zaid.
But for White House staff, protected privacy may not cover all the information unearthed during the background check as the process consists of two separate reviews -- one for clearance and one for suitability, Zaid said.
White House counsel would be notified of a possible suitability issue -- but it is unclear what or how much they would be told.
In the case of White House staff secretary Rob Porter, one source told CNN that he was interviewed by the FBI in fall 2017 and was confronted about allegations of domestic abuse from his ex-wives.