Amid the daily barrage of news coming from the White House, it’s often hard to tell what really matters and what doesn’t. But the latest revelation about the security clearance process should concern all Americans.
The House Oversight Committee has released excerpts from an interview with a White House employee, Tricia Newbold, a civil servant who has worked for almost two decades in the Personnel Security Office that handles security clearances. Newbold testified that career officials have denied security clearance applications for at least 25 officials, including two current “senior White House officials,” and that these denials were overruled for political reasons. Among the concerns raised about applicants were susceptibility to foreign influence or blackmail, questionable personal conduct, financial problems, illegal drug use and criminal activity.
The two “senior White House officials,” according to news reports, are President Donald Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, who received their clearances only after his intervention.
During the 11 years I worked for Barack Obama in the Senate and the White House, I was approved three times for top secret security clearances. To obtain a clearance, applicants provide extensive information about their mental health, civil and criminal judgments, drug and alcohol use, and financial interests. Detailed information also is required about foreign contacts, especially with other governments, foreign financial activities, and travel abroad.
After the information is submitted, investigators interview not only the applicant but also friends, work colleagues, and neighbors. Given the amount of information provided, the review process often takes months.
The process is lengthy and burdensome, and that’s a good thing. Obtaining a security clearance gives someone access to the nation’s most sensitive secrets — information often collected at great risk by intelligence operatives. Foreign adversaries go to extraordinary lengths to obtain this classified information, and any personal weaknesses in officials with clearances can be exploited.
When investigators talk to an applicant’s friends during the clearance process, the interview typically ends with these questions:
Do you have any reason to believe the applicant might be susceptible to blackmail?
Do you have any reason to question the applicant’s loyalty to the United States?
It should trouble all Americans that questions have been raised about the loyalty and susceptibility to blackmail of at least 25 federal employees with access to classified information. Instead of mitigating these national security risks, senior White House officials, reportedly even the president, intervened to override the decisions of career security professionals.
During my four years in the White House, I never met Newbold, nor was I aware of her office’s function. There’s a reason for that. Senior political appointees are supposed to be removed from the security clearance process.
Experienced career professionals are entrusted to make decisions based on objective criteria, guided only by what’s in the best interest of national security. The decisions shouldn’t be influenced by political considerations — or even the applicant’s relationship to the president.
Trump has denied influencing security clearances, but his relationship with national security matters has been fraught with controversy. After all, Trump has used an unsecured cellphone while in office. He has disclosed classified information to the Russian foreign minister, conducted a national security meeting in front of Mar-a-Lago guests, and bragged about a classified military operation to campaign donors. He has further politicized the security clearance process by revoking the clearances of his critics.
It’s easy for folks outside the Beltway to tune out this latest scandal. That would be a big mistake. This is much more than partisan politics.
Chris Lu served as White House cabinet secretary during the Obama administration and is a senior fellow at the University of Virginia Miller Center.