RICHMOND — Democrat Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA officer challenging Rep. Dave Brat (R) in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, says a conservative super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan obtained sensitive personal information about her from a questionnaire she submitted to the federal government years ago while seeking security clearance.
“I write as a former civil servant and as an American, in shock and in anger, that you have tried to exploit my service to our country by exposing my most personal information in the name of politics,” Spanberger wrote in a letter to the Congressional Leadership Fund.
She demanded that the group destroy any copies of the form, which included her Social Security number and medical history. Usually, that information is redacted from a public record before it is released.
The super PAC said it obtained a copy of the questionnaire legally — through a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by America Rising, another political action committee that conducts opposition research on Democratic candidates.
It provided a copy of the FOIA request and a reply from the Postal Service saying it was providing Spanberger’s personnel file in response. Spanberger worked as a postal inspector, a job that also required security clearance, before joining the CIA.
The release of Spanberger’s full security questionnaire was first reported by the New York Times.
Spanberger held a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon with Ned Price, a former CIA officer and special assistant to President Barack Obama. Price called the release of her questionnaire — which he said was handled in just three weeks — “jaw dropping.”
“I have never once heard of an SF-86 being released to the public pursuant to a FOIA request,” he said, referring to the name of the form. He added that it was possible a bureaucrat mistakenly provided the documents. But given the relative speed of the release and the political moment, that “strains credulity,” Price said.
Spanberger said a firm hired by her campaign to research her background — a standard practice so campaigns know what information is available for rivals to gather — requested her federal employment records in December and is still waiting for them.
Republicans suggested that Spanberger was trying to distract from the fact that the documents showed she once taught English at Islamic Saudi Academy, a Northern Virginia school that critics have dubbed “Terror High” because some students later joined al-Qaeda.
“America Rising submitted a standard Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking information from the National Personnel Records Center, which was referred to the United States Postal Service, an independent agency, which provided us responsive documents,” said Joe Pounder, the chief executive of America Rising Corp. “The real reason Spanberger is so upset is official government documents show a past employer she didn’t want voters to know about.”
David Partenheimer, a spokesman for the Postal Service, said he was looking into the matter but did not have an immediate response.
Brat’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
He and Spanberger are engaged in an increasingly competitive race in the 7th District, a formerly solid GOP seat that the Cook Political Report has moved into “toss-up” territory.
Brat won the seat four years ago after pulling off an upset in the GOP primary, snagging the nomination from then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. But he faces stiff head winds this year, given President Trump’s unpopularity in the largely suburban district and the fact that some Cantor supporters remain cool to him and some of his past comments angered some female constituents.
Spanberger mentions on the campaign trail that she once worked as a substitute teacher at a private school. She filled in for a teacher who was on maternity leave during the 2002-2003 school year, a job she took after she’d gotten a conditional job offer from the CIA and was waiting out the long security-clearance process.
Her first inkling that someone was looking into her teaching stint came in early August, when a campaign staffer happened to get a call from a Republican pollster, Jones said.
“One of the questions was along the lines, ‘Would you or would you not support Spanberger [if ] she worked at an Islamic Saudi school funded by the royal family,’ ” said her spokesman, Justin Jones.
Spanberger’s first thought, Jones said, was, “Someone has my SF-86.”
On Aug. 16, an Associated Press reporter approached Spanberger and Jones at an event, saying he had received copies of the form from the Congressional Leadership Fund on “background,” meaning the material had been offered on the condition that the source not be revealed. The reporter said the AP decided to break the background agreement after its lawyers reviewed the material and concluded that the CLF could not have obtained it legally, Jones said.
“This is awkward, but we got an oppo dump from CLF,” Jones recalled the reporter saying. “Our legal team reviewed it and are willing to break [the] background [agreement] because they had no capacity to obtain this legally.”
Jones said the reporter then showed an image of the form to Spanberger on his phone.
“It’s the whole, entire document. It’s the whole shebang,” Jones said. “You’re putting your faith in the government that they’re going to protect this information, so it’s an attack on civil servants. It’s a national security risk to some degree.”
AP spokesman Bryan Baldwin disputed Jones’s account. “Contrary to what was reported, the AP’s legal team did not give permission to break a confidentiality agreement with a source,” Baldwin said. “The situation at hand resulted from mistakes and miscommunications within the news department. AP’s standards are clear: We protect sources and honor confidentiality agreements.”
In 2002, Spanberger got a conditional job offer with the CIA, contingent on her passing an exhaustive background check. She also sought work as a postal inspector and for both jobs filled out the questionnaire known as an SF-86 as part of that process. She then looked around for other work because it could take years for security clearance to come through.
She waited tables and then heard — from a fellow waitress who taught part-time at Islamic Saudi Academy — that there was a temporary opening there for an English teacher. Spanberger took the job.
Her work there did not stop her from receiving a security clearance. She updated her SF-86 to note that she had left waitressing for the teaching job, identifying the school by name. She later got a job as a postal inspector and finally started with the CIA in 2006.
On Tuesday, Spanberger sent a letter to the Congressional Leadership Fund threatening legal action if it did not “destroy every copy . . . of my unredacted SF86” and agree not to share any information obtained from it.
The super PAC responded by releasing a copy of the FOIA request that America Rising Corp. submitted to the National Personnel Records Center on July 9. The center on July 12 forwarded that request to the Postal Service, which responded July 30 with Spanberger’s “entire personnel folder” — including the SF-86 form, the super PAC said.
“By attempting to divert attention from the fact that she was employed by a Saudi government-funded high school that produced two students who were accused of preparing for suicide bombings, as well as a valedictorian who was convicted on charges of providing material support to the al Qaeda terrorist network as part of a conspiracy to assassinate then-President George W. Bush, Abigail Spanberger is trying to stifle vital political speech about her qualifications for public office, which is protected under the First Amendment,” the Congressional Leadership Fund wrote in a reply to Spanberger’s campaign.
The super PAC notes that Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, the school’s 1999 valedictorian, was convicted in 2005 on charges of providing material support to the al Qaeda and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Emily’s List, the political group trying to elect more Democratic women, accused the super PAC of “weaponizing” Spanberger’s security questionnaire.
“It’s the season for political attacks and Abigail Spanberger knew they were coming. What’s shocking is that Paul Ryan’s super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, would cross ethical lines in using information inappropriately obtained from her security clearance application and weaponizing it as a political attack,” Christina Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the organization, said in a statement.
“The Republicans are clearly willing to do anything to win, but this shameful act is beyond the pale, and every Republican currently benefiting from CLF’s attack ads should have to answer for their actions.”