The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump is in debt. We can’t ignore the national security risks that come with that.

President Trump walks to Marine One on Oct. 2 en route to Walter Reed Military Medical Center. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post). (Amanda Voisard/for The Washington Post)
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Michael Morell is a Post contributing columnist and has twice served as acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency. David Kris is a former assistant attorney general for national security.

There is a powerful reason nearly all federal employees with access to classified information turn over deeply personal details about their lives and finances to security experts: Debts and other vulnerabilities can create weaknesses that our nation’s adversaries could exploit.

Multiple studies have shown that, while betrayal of one’s country is a crime that has complex psychological underpinnings, money is a leading motivator. And paying off large, unsustainable debts is often a driver of an interest in money.

For example, Aldrich Ames, the most damaging spy in the history of the CIA, and responsible for the deaths of multiple CIA assets in the former Soviet Union, told prosecutors after his arrest that he began spying for the Russians because he was in debt and needed funds to dig himself out of the hole.

As former national security officials of the government, we have no special insight into President Trump’s financial condition, but if the recent news accounts are correct, his financial situation presents a significant counterintelligence risk — because the millions of dollars he owes over the next few years put his very financial solvency at risk. If he can’t pay these debts, he may face severe business, political and social consequences.

The Post’s Jonathan O’Connell and David A. Fahrenthold explain the legal troubles President Trump could face after a New York Times investigation. (Video: The Washington Post)

This would undoubtedly be the conclusion of the professional “adjudicators” whose job it is to decide whether to grant someone a security clearance. But, because he is the president, Trump did not need to go through the normal process of filling out necessary forms and having his case reviewed. The American people gave him the highest clearance when they elected him in 2016. Members of Congress are also exempted from this exhaustive review.

Having said that, we have no doubt that if the president were a normal applicant for a job requiring access to classified information, any adjudicator we know would have rejected him over concerns that his high levels of debt would create an unacceptable counterintelligence risk. Trump would have been denied a clearance.

The screening process begins with Standard Form 86, the “Questionnaire for National Security Positions.” Also known as the SF-86, the form is deeply intrusive. (We’ve filled out multiple SF-86s, and the supplements that accompany it, over the course of our careers.) The process leaves no financial, or personal, stone unturned.

Apart from questions about family and marital history, mental health, and drug and alcohol use, the form demands a massive amount of financial data, including whether you have filed for bankruptcy, failed to pay taxes, experienced financial problems as a result of gambling, defaulted on a loan, had any account or credit card suspended, or been more than 120 days delinquent on any debt. Applicants sign broad waivers allowing investigators to review their private financial (and medical) records.

Beyond the debts themselves, if an applicant has ties to a foreign adversary, or if some of the debt is owed to foreign entities, the risk is higher. Which is why the SF-86 places special emphasis on surfacing information about an applicant’s foreign activities — including foreign financial interests such as “stocks, property, investments, bank accounts, ownership of corporate entities,” foreign business, professional and governmental contacts, and foreign trade.

Transparency is vital. If an applicant tries to hide anything, a clearance would be denied. If an employee, came forward during a routine security reinvestigation and admitted to a debt problem, continued employment would be contingent upon regularly seeing a financial counselor and developing a debt payback plan, along with often moving to a less sensitive job. If a U.S. official tries to hide a debt, he or she would lose their job.

For a senior official, and certainly for a president, the counterintelligence risk is direct — a foreign intelligence officer shows up and offers to pay your debt in exchange for sensitive information or policy decisions.

But there is an additional, just as insidious risk, that is more subtle: a president, eager or even desperate to clear his accounts might, without any foreign intervention, pursue policies not with the goal of furthering U.S. national interests, but rather with the goal of advancing his or her business either before leaving office or after. Both types are a betrayal of one’s country.

We do not know to whom Trump owes his debts. But for all these reasons, we should. There is no evidence that the counterintelligence risk has come to fruition with the president, but there are signs — Trump’s refusal to call out Russian President Vladimir Putin for a variety of damaging actions, for example — that could suggest that the second, more subtle risk, may be playing out before us.

Money has powerful impact on the psyches of many people — and not always for the good. That’s why the SF-86, and the transparency it provides, is so important — at least for those who have to fill it out.

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