For the entire time Rob Porter worked in the White House — as staff secretary to President Trump, meaning he was responsible for managing documents going to and from the president — he was operating under interim security clearance. That is not uncommon for new arrivals at a government agency: They get the job and interim clearance, fill out the lengthy SF-86 clearance application, talk to the FBI for a background check and wait for permanent clearance to be granted.
What is uncommon in Porter’s case is twofold. First, that he operated under interim clearance for as long as he did. Second, that someone at the White House clearly knew about the spousal abuse accusations for months before they led to Porter’s resignation — yet he never lost even that interim clearance.
In testimony on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said the agency had, on four occasions, given information related to Porter’s background check to the White House. In March, the agency gave the White House a “partial report,” then a complete version in July. Asked to provide follow-up information, it did so in November, closing the case in January. Early this month, it passed on more information still. (It is unclear whether the information shared this month was related to the story having been made public.)
Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders explained, just because the FBI’s work was done, the investigation into Porter was not.
“The White House Personnel Security Office, staffed by career officials, received information last year in what they considered to be the final background investigation report in November,” she told reporters during Tuesday’s news briefing. “But they had not made a final recommendation for adjudication to the White House because the process was still ongoing when Rob Porter resigned.”
After The Washington Post reported on Sanders’s comments, I received an email from someone who had worked in the government performing background checks on new hires for several decades, working for presidents from both parties. Since he now works for a company that does business with the government, he asked not to be identified by name — “with this White House, there’d be retribution,” he said. (I verified the man I spoke with was who he presented himself to be and he had held the positions he indicated.)
“There are real people with real job descriptions that grant security clearances. They have real desks, and they sit in real offices. They have the real authority to do it,” he said. “The FBI doesn’t grant security clearances. They do the background investigation.”
At the White House, those real people’s desks are in the Personnel Security Office. They take the SF-86 forms from new applicants and do an initial evaluation of what the forms contain before granting interim clearance. There are guidelines for that evaluation which vary somewhat by agency. Generally, though, they adhere to this delineation from the Defense Security Service.
There are 13 different considerations the DSS suggests be applied to consideration of an application for clearance.
- Allegiance to the United States. “An individual must be of unquestioned allegiance to the United States.”
- Foreign influence. If loved ones “bound by affection, influence, or obligation are not citizens of the United States or may be subject to duress” from foreign nations.
- Foreign preference. “[A]n individual acts in such a way as to indicate a preference for a foreign country over the United States.”
- Sexual behavior. “[A] security concern if it … may subject the individual to coercion, exploitation, or duress, or reflects lack of judgment or discretion.”
- Personal conduct. “Conduct involving questionable judgment, untrustworthiness, unreliability, lack of candor, dishonesty or unwillingness to comply with rules and regulations could indicate that the person may not properly safeguard classified information.”
- Financial considerations. Someone who is “at risk of having to engage in illegal acts to generate funds.”
- Alcohol consumption. “Excessive alcohol consumption often leads to the exercise of questionable judgment, unreliability, failure to control impulses. …”
- Drug involvement. “Improper or illegal involvement with drugs raises questions regarding an individual’s willingness or ability to protect classified information.”
- Psychological conditions. “Emotional, mental and personality disorders can cause a significant deficit in an individual’s psychological, social and occupational functioning.”
- Criminal conduct. “A history or pattern of criminal activity creates doubt about a person’s judgment, reliability and trustworthiness.”
- Handling protected information. Caution against “[n]oncompliance with security regulations.”
- Outside activities. Activity that “poses a conflict with an individual’s security responsibilities and could create an increased risk of unauthorized disclosure of classified information” is problematic.
- Use of information technology systems. “Noncompliance with rules, procedures, guidelines or regulations pertaining to information technology systems may raise security concerns …”
(The person with whom I spoke noted how many of those points former national security adviser Michael Flynn likely violated based on publicly available information at the outset of Trump’s presidency.)
Those are guidelines, mind you. The person with whom I spoke noted the interpretation of an application is necessarily subjective.
Nor is that list complete. He pointed to missing information, such as when White House senior adviser Jared Kushner had to repeatedly amend his SF-86 to include more foreign contacts. That alone would have raised a red flag.
The section of the SF-86 dealing with former spouses covers only basic identifying information.
There are also questions about criminal convictions for domestic violence and about valid domestic violence protective orders.
Porter does not appear to have faced domestic violence charges at any point. It is not clear if a 2010 protective order issued on behalf of his second wife was still in effect at the time he came to the White House.
Meaning, that is, the abuse accusations may not have been noticed during the Personnel Office’s first review of the application. If the form has problems, my source said, the office would be “obligated not to” grant interim clearance to Porter.
Apparently they signed off, passing the application to the FBI. The bureau’s role was to run a background check on Porter’s SF 86 and see whether the information it contained was accurate, but not to determine whether he should be granted clearance based on what it found.
The FBI “interviews every single person,” he said, including the applicant. In Porter’s case, the FBI spoke with both of his ex-wives in January 2017. That same month, Porter reportedly warned White House Counsel Donald McGahn he expected his wives to present negative information about him, though not specifically what that information was.
That the FBI came back to the White House in March might be significant, my source said. He indicated the FBI would sometimes go back to government agencies with preliminary information about applicants expecting what they had found would obviate the need to complete the background check. If, for example, the FBI found an applicant had huge gambling debt and ties to the Mafia, for example, the agency might give his or her employer a heads up, and the person might quickly lose interim clearance and be terminated.
Either way, the FBI’s initial review was complete in July, at which point, it seems, the bureau was asked for more information. That additional investigation was completed in November. (The FBI did have further contact with both ex-wives during that period. In September, Porter, angry about not having received his clearance, called his second ex-wife to ask whether she had said he had been violent toward her. She informed the FBI of that call, and the agency, a few days later, called his first ex-wife to see if anyone had contacted her in relation to the case.)
To hear the press secretary tell it, the Personnel Office spent the time from November forward trying to determine whether Porter deserved permanent clearance.
“There’s no way that the Personnel Security Office at the White House, which is very small, would be sitting around for three or four months mulling over whether to give this guy clearance,” my source said. That is especially the case because the office would already have had that preliminary information from March and July. They had requested more information — but by July, had the bulk of his SF 86 form vetted and analyzed.
“I don’t know what it is they’re doing if they’re not adjudicating,” my source said of the Personnel Office. He read from the Defense Security Service’s “Roles and Responsibilities for Personnel Security” to demonstrate there is a rule of thumb for resolving difficult situations.
“Any doubt concerning personnel being considered for access to classified information … is resolved in favor of the national security,” that document reads. In other words, if it is not clear whether someone would be a risk to national security, the assumption should be that they are.
He acknowledged Porter was a tricky case politically. In that situation, denying Porter clearance meant denying him the ability to work in the White House and in that role. That could mean there was pressure, even indirectly, on the Personnel Office to not weigh in against Porter’s clearance. Instead of going to Chief of Staff John F. Kelly with concerns about Porter, my source said he would have gone to McGahn, understanding Kelly’s predisposition to keeping Porter in place.
My source’s frustration with how the process at the White House appeared to have been operating was clear. He summarized it succinctly:
“It’s just bad, is what it is.”