Dozens of White House employees are awaiting permanent security clearances and have been working for months with temporary approvals to handle sensitive information while the FBI continues to probe their backgrounds, according to U.S. officials.
The issue of clearances has become a major area of concern since White House staff secretary Rob Porter resigned after allegations surfaced that he had been violent toward his two ex-wives — accusations he has denied.
White House spokesman Raj Shah defended the administration’s handling of the matter, saying it was following proper procedure in letting the investigation proceed.
“We should not short-circuit an investigation just because allegations are made,’’ he said. “The truth must be determined, and that is what was going on with Rob Porter.”
Porter, according to officials, was interviewed by the FBI in September, when he was asked about the alleged domestic violence. Shah added that Porter received “no special treatment” in the handling of his case.
National security lawyer Mark Zaid, who represents government employees going through the security-clearance process, said it is not necessarily sinister that dozens of White House employees lack clearance. He said the Trump White House, in particular, might be going through the clearance process slowly because those working there have not previously been in government and their extensive foreign and business ties take additional time to explore. Zaid said people often operate with interim clearances for months.
Of Porter, Zaid said the accusations he faces — while “abhorrent” — might not be automatically disqualifying if he put forth evidence to rebut or mitigate them that the FBI would then have to examine. He also noted that the clearance process is intentionally shrouded in secrecy. FBI agents communicate their findings to the White House Security Office, which determines whether a person should get a clearance. No one else should be told what the FBI has found — save for the employee in question, who would normally be given a chance to step aside rather than face rejection.
“Technically speaking, there’s not really supposed to be a sharing of information along the way, at least not specific information, because people have privacy rights,” Zaid said.
Good-government advocates have long been critical of the security-clearance process. The U.S. Government Accountability Office last month added the system to its “high risk” list of federal areas in need of reform, noting that executive branch agencies were “unable to investigate and process personnel security clearances in a timely manner, contributing to a significant backlog of background investigations.”
That backlog, the GAO said, totaled more than 700,000 cases as of September 2017. The GAO noted that it raised similar concerns more than a decade earlier.
Democrats on Capitol Hill have tried to press the issue regarding the Trump White House, though Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, said in a letter Thursday that their efforts have been largely stymied.
The White House, Cummings wrote, had not responded to his requests for information related to several officials’ security clearances, and Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the Republican chairman of the committee, had blocked any move toward a subpoena.
Citing Porter’s case, Cummings asked Gowdy to support a new bid for documents.
“Mr. Porter’s case is only the latest example of requests made by Democratic Members to conduct oversight of the security clearance process,” Cummings wrote. “You have also refused requests to obtain documents regarding the security clearances of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, his son Michael Flynn Jr., Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner, and others.”
Kushner’s situation has drawn intense scrutiny, in part because his conduct is under investigation as part of the probe into possible Russian coordination with Trump associates and because he has repeatedly amended disclosure forms to add new information.
It is unusual for senior White House personnel to wait more than three months for a permanent top secret/sensitive compartmented information clearance though it has happened, said a former senior White House official in the Obama administration familiar with the process.
One senior official in the Obama administration had to wait two years for a variety of reasons, the former official said, but that was a rare case.
“If you’re on the speed track, it can be a matter of four to six weeks,” he said.
In Kushner’s case, his extensive travel and overseas contacts are one reason the clearance process has dragged on, as investigators try to verify his reporting. Another complicating factor is his business interests; as the former head of a real estate company, his finances are more complex than many other incoming government officials.
Nonetheless, at more than a year out, assuming the process began when Kushner was in the transition, “it is longer than it should be,” the former official said. “That just tells me that somebody’s uncomfortable with the information that they have in his background.”
The FBI does not make recommendations to White House officials as to who should or shouldn’t get a clearance, officials said.
A spokesman for Kushner did not respond to a request for comment. The FBI declined to comment.
Security-clearance investigations aim to determine whether individuals pose a risk of revealing sensitive government information, based on a variety of factors, including their loyalty to the country, potential foreign influences in their lives or problems of a sexual, criminal, financial or psychological nature.
If such issues are found, federal guidelines say, they should be assessed in terms of how recently they occurred, how frequently and how likely they are to recur.
Law enforcement officials say the biggest red flags in clearance reviews tend to be when investigators catch a person lying — either on disclosure forms or in face-to-face interviews with agents.
Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.