If Donald Trump were an off-the-street federal job applicant, he most likely would not be granted a security clearance. Measured against the standards applied to thousands of Americans involved with our national security, knowledge essential to granting Trump access to classified information simply isn’t there.
Security clearances are granted after determining that an individual’s personal and professional histories make it safe to do so. The criteria for such a judgment include, quoting State Department policy, the person’s “loyalty to the United States, strength of character, trustworthiness, honesty, reliability, discretion, and sound judgment, as well as freedom from conflicting allegiances and potential for coercion, and a willingness and ability to abide by regulations governing the use, handling, and protection of classified information.”
Eligibility for access to classified information is not based on a person’s wealth, business acumen or ability to persuade large crowds. Great attributes, maybe. But they are no basis upon which to decide whether an individual ought to have access to the nation’s secrets.
The most critical step in deciding whether to grant someone access to classified information is a background investigation consisting of a thorough examination of the individual’s past and current histories.
In previous incarnations, and during years of service as an investigator with the U.S. Civil Service Commission (now the Office of Personnel Management) and as a special agent and regional security officer with the State Department, I conducted hundreds of background investigations here and overseas.
Life histories tell a lot, and a lot must be known about people entrusted with our national security.
This is where deciding whether Trump is an acceptable security risk hits a wall.
There is so much about him and his conduct, past and present, that is unknown.
And, as the Wall Street Journal reported this week, questions about Trump may be causing U.S. intelligence officials to withhold sensitive intelligence from him.
The intelligence community’s concerns, reportedly, center on the Trump team’s contacts with the Russian government. There are also Trump’s repeated expressions of admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump’s call during the presidential primary for Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails, and FBI and CIA knowledge that the Russians leaked Clinton campaign emails to undermine her candidacy and boost Trump’s.
Then there are those aspects of Trump’s life that would raise security concerns were they found in background checks of others seeking clearances. Applicants’ associations with foreign interests — especially substantial business, financial or property interests in a foreign country or with foreign-owned businesses — would not escape U.S. scrutiny, especially if those associations might subject the applicant to a risk of foreign influence or exploitation.
Trump has eluded such an examination.
Little is known about the nature of Trump’s foreign business relationships — what they are, his conduct while traveling outside the United States, or his interactions with foreign governments known to target U.S. citizens to try to obtain protected information.
A background investigation that uncovers questionable judgment, lack of candor or dishonesty draws heightened attention. So, too, the refusal to provide full, frank and truthful answers to lawful questions. That kind of activity may constitute grounds for unfavorable clearance action.
Trump has never been subjected to such an inquiry.
He has a proven record of not providing truthful or candid answers. True, it didn’t disqualify him from the presidency. It would, ironically, darken his chances of getting a U.S. government security clearance.
A security clearance applicant who has engaged in deceptive financial practices, who has a history of failing to meet financial obligations, and who fails to identify and explain all sources of income is a red flag. Such a record, of course, is no bar to the presidency.
A background investigation that turns up evidence of possible emotional, mental or personality disorders, even without a formal diagnosis, elevates security concerns , although not to the point of disqualification without an evaluation by a duly qualified mental-health professional. But bizarre behavior suggesting emotional instability, and which casts doubt on the individual’s judgment or reliability, will certainly get a closer professional look before a security clearance is granted. Trump has no such worries.
The White House denies that the intelligence community is keeping sensitive information from Trump. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence agrees.
Indeed, it’s doubtful that the intelligence community would hold back about security threats or potential plots against the United States.
But to expose sensitive information about Russia to an enigmatic Trump, with advisers and former staff now under investigation by the FBI and congressional committees? Without solid evidence that Trump is reliable and can be trusted?
That might explain why the intelligence community may be keeping some secrets under wraps — that is, until Americans who place patriotism above partisanship, such as Vice President Pence, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), decide that the national interests supersede Trump’s fixation and fascination with himself, and they agree that the intelligence community should come forward to speak truth to power.
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