A whistleblower inside the White House has alerted us to yet another national security concern in the Trump administration. We already know that President Donald Trump at best ignores, and at worst dismisses, the advice and counsel of his own intelligence agencies, he continues to use a non-secure personal cell phone and his family resides each weekend at a Florida club accessible to external members, their guests, a massage parlor owner and donor and even uninvited foreign nationals bearing malware. This week, we learned from 18-year government veteran Tricia Newbold that at least 25 administration officials who should not have security clearances were granted those clearances despite official recommendations to the contrary.
This president, perhaps more than any other, generates threats from inside his own White House.
Every president faces external threats from state sponsors, terrorists, hackers and other bad actors. Yet this president, perhaps more than any other, generates threats from inside his own White House. The ease with which Trump has undermined this clearance process — which is within his rights as the chief executive — is an indication both of the president’s reckless judgment and how broken our security clearance process has become.
The factors that cause concern when evaluating whether someone should get or keep a clearance are the same factors that foreign intelligence services identify as vulnerabilities when they assess who they might compromise, co-opt or recruit. Financial problems, drug use or alcohol abuse, mental illness issues, domestic violence or continuing foreign business entanglements all need to be fully addressed before a clearance is granted. Clearance candidates who try to hide such factors by not truthfully answering security vetting questions are particularly susceptible to blackmail. The fact that the Trump White House also instructed investigators to stop including credit checks as part of the clearance process is a clue that financial stability is a particular sore spot.
Security clearances are vetted for a reason. When the system works properly, employees identified with issues are often referred to financial counselors, substance abuse experts, or mental health professionals. When that happens, government security officials monitor the employee’s progress toward resolving the identified concerns. This process provides the American people a more stable and secure cadre of cleared officials who are incentivized to earn and keep a coveted clearance. When the system awards clearances to political cronies of the president despite serious security flags, however, we become blind to the threat and risk presented by those inside the corridors of power.
When executive branch officials at the White House level get clearances they should not have, their proximity to power typically results in virtually unfettered access to our most sensitive information. Unlike the “need to know” protocols practiced at other government agencies, it’s hard to decline a request for sensitive intelligence from someone who works just steps away from the Oval Office.
At the “top secret” classification level, officials also learn the sensitive sources and methods by which the intelligence was gleaned. If the officials are in debt, or owe something to a foreign entity, a drug dealer, a suspected terrorist, or simply want to curry favor to support a personal business deal, they can use this access to attract or appease an unauthorized entity. In so doing, the compromised employee likely would not even fully grasp the potential consequences, up to and including getting an U.S. intelligence source killed.
The House Committee on Oversight and Reform voted along party lines to subpoena Carl Kline, the former head of the personnel security division at the White House and whistleblower Tricia Newbold’s former supervisor. Newbold alleges Kline cruelly retaliated against her when she tried to sound the alarm on potential security clearance problems. The committee is right to deeply examine what security risks may have resulted from this subversion of the clearance process.
But they must also go a step further. The security clearance decision process is clearly flawed when the White House is treated as an all-powerful client of the FBI, other investigative agencies and the intelligence agencies who weigh in on clearance findings and recommendations. The White House should not be viewed as a client but rather a consumer of the investigative findings and recommendations. And decisions about who gains access to our nation’s most sensitive secrets should be left in the hands of nonpartisan career security professionals.