The Trump White House has tried to point the finger at the Obama administration for its travails with retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, whom the president fired as national security adviser just three weeks after taking the oath of office. Flynn was fired after The Washington Post reported that he had misled other administration officials, including Vice President Pence, about whether he had discussed pending sanctions with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition.
So what were the circumstances of his clearance?
The federal government is a very big place. The White House should not necessarily assume that political appointees know everything that is happening across the bureaucracy. (Perhaps they have figured this out by now.)
In this case, Flynn’s clearance was a routine matter, said Jim Kudla, a DIA spokesman. Flynn had left the agency but the practice there is that all former DIA directors should keep a clearance so the current director is able to have a discussion with former directors about classified matters that might require insight from a previous director.
Flynn’s clearance at DIA comes up for renewal every five years, and so in January 2016, he filed the necessary paperwork. Kudla said the clearance was only for Defense Department matters. “It was not so General Flynn could go to other agencies asking for classified information,” he said. Each agency would be required to determine whether to allow access to classified materials. Kudla noted that “at the time it was being renewed, early in 2016, he was not in the political sphere he subsequently became.”
As part of the clearance renewal, Kudla said, an applicant is asked about foreign travel and foreign contacts. Kudla said that there are a couple of questions about foreign financial interests, such as stock investments, but asking about payments for a foreign speech is not part of the clearance process.
Separately, he noted, Flynn as a former Army officer is supposed to receive permission from the secretary of the Army and the secretary of state before accepting payments from foreign governments. Flynn’s lawyer has said that as part of the clearance review he disclosed his attendance at a 2015 event in Moscow organized by Russia Today, a government-linked news organization that U.S. consider to be a propaganda front. But lawmakers have charged that Flynn probably broke the law when he did not disclose $45,000 that he received from appearing at the 2015 event and nearly $34,000 from RT.
“Most of the security clearance process deals with questions of character and trustworthiness (though it also includes consideration of possible foreign allegiance),” said Steven Aftergood, director of the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. “It does not address questions of competence or policy judgment.” He noted that “in light of concerns about Russian election-tampering, General Flynn’s record of interactions with Russian entities took on a new significance that they did not have in 2015.”
White House officials acknowledge that Flynn was still awaiting a CIA clearance when he was fired by Trump. At the time he was fired, Flynn had an interim clearance in order to allow him to do his job.
“I know what I went through as a political appointee twice, in a Republican and a Democratic administration,” said James R. Clapper Jr., the former director of national intelligence, in testimony on May 8. “And the vetting process for either a political appointee or someone working in the White House is far, far more invasive and far, far more thorough than a standard TS/SCI clearance process.” (TS/SCI refers to “Top Secret / Sensitive Compartmented Information,” the clearance level Flynn held at DIA.)
The Pinocchio Test
Flynn’s security clearance was a routine matter, done mainly to benefit the head of the DIA, and it did not rise to a political level. So Trump and other White House officials are engaging in a distraction when they suggest that Obama failed to take action against Flynn.
Obama actually fired Flynn because of perceived management flaws. It’s unclear exactly what Obama told Trump in private, but that appears to have been a key message, given the central role the national security adviser has in coordinating U.S. foreign policy. The concerns about Flynn’s dealings with Russia came only later, after U.S. intelligence realized he was discussing U.S. sanctions with the Russians and then misleading other U.S. officials about the nature of his conversations. He also did not disclose his payment from RT to government officials until after he was fired by Trump.
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