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Security clearances at White House come under renewed scrutiny

  • Author: Michael D. Shear, Matthew Rosenberg, The New York Times
  • Updated: February 13, 2018
  • Published February 13, 2018

White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner during the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Thursday. More than a year after joining the White House, Kushner still has not succeeded in securing a permanent security clearance. (Tom Brenner/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — One week after the 2016 election, President-elect Donald Trump tweeted that he was "not trying to get 'top level security clearance' for my children," calling such claims "a typically false news story." But he said nothing at the time about his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Nearly 15 months later, Kushner, now a senior White House adviser with a broad foreign policy portfolio that requires access to some of the intelligence community's most closely guarded secrets, still has not succeeded in securing a permanent security clearance. The delay has left him operating on an interim status that allows him access to classified material while the FBI continues working on his full background investigation.

Kushner's status was similar to the status of others in the White House, including Rob Porter, the staff secretary who resigned last week after his two former wives alleged that he physically and emotionally abused them during their marriages.

People familiar with the security clearance process in Trump's White House said it was widely acknowledged among senior aides that raising questions about unresolved vetting issues in a staff member's background would implicitly reflect on Kushner's status, as well — a situation made more awkward because Kushner is married to the president's daughter Ivanka.

It remains unclear why Kushner's security clearance has taken so long. He has publicly admitted to making several mistakes on the national security questionnaire required of all prospective White House employees. Kushner's background as a wealthy New York real estate developer with a complicated financial history is also likely to have slowed the thorough background check process.

Kushner has also been interviewed by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, though it is not known whether any potential actions relevant to the Russia inquiry are part of the delay in finishing Kushner's background check.

Abbe D. Lowell, Kushner's lawyer, said in a statement that "it is not uncommon for this process to take this long in a new administration (some taking as long as two years)" and that there are "a dozen or more people at Kushner's level whose process is delayed like his."

Questions about the security clearance process at the White House have become more urgent after the scandal surrounding Porter and the still-unanswered questions about when the president's aides knew about the abuse allegations against him. On Monday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, again refused to provide a detailed explanation.

"I can't get into the specifics," Sanders said in response to questions about what Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, knew about the Porter allegations and when he knew it.

Sanders referred questions about the security clearance process — and why Porter was allowed to continue working at the White House for so long despite the abuse accusations — to the FBI and the intelligence agencies, saying they are the ones that handle the background checks and the granting of permission to handle classified information.

"It's up to those same law enforcement and intelligence agencies to determine if changes need to be made to their process," she said. "If changes are thought to be made, that would be made by the law enforcement and intel communities that run that process, not the White House. But that's something that could be looked at, certainly, in light of this."

The FBI had no comment on Monday.

The finger-pointing has frustrated Democratic members of Congress, who have pushed to gain visibility into the security clearance procedure at the White House — and the possible holdups for the clearances of a number of staff members — but have found their efforts largely stymied by Republicans.

Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has refused to ask the White House for any information about security clearances or for a formal briefing on the matter, Democrats on the panel said Monday. He has also refused to allow the committee to vote on three subpoenas proposed by Democrats, including one on interim clearances.

Gowdy's office did not respond to a request for comment.

In a letter sent last week, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the committee, pressed Gowdy to more aggressively tackle the security clearance issue, saying that news of Porter's problems had given the matter renewed urgency.

"If you had agreed to any of our previous requests for information on these matters, the White House would have been required to answer key questions about why Mr. Porter was denied a final security clearance, who at the White House was aware of this information, and how Mr. Porter was allowed to remain in his position," Cummings wrote.

"Instead, because of your multiple refusals, we did not find out about any of these issues until they were reported in the press," he added. "In this and many, many other areas, it appears that the Oversight Committee has constructed a wall around the White House in order to prevent any credible oversight whatsoever."

The process for allowing White House officials to work with secret, classified material typically begins when West Wing employees are subjected to a brief background check and are granted interim clearance. A full background check by the FBI and, in some cases, the CIA, then begins.

Officials with previous administrations said it is not uncommon for the full background checks to take as long as eight months or a year, in part because of a long backlog in vetting the backgrounds of people needing clearance across the federal government. For example, Defense Department officials estimated recently that nearly 100,000 people who work with military contractors hold interim clearances while waiting for their full background checks.

Background checks take about a year for Pentagon employees and six to seven months for prospective CIA or National Security Agency workers, a senior U.S. official said.

What McGahn and other top White House officials learned about the accusations against Porter, and when they learned it, remains murky.

Porter told McGahn in January 2017 that there could be what he described as false accusations against him, according to two people briefed on the situation. In June, the FBI informed the White House security office that accusations of domestic abuse had surfaced. McGahn was made aware at the time that there was an issue with Porter's background investigation but relied on the security office to continue pursuing the background check.

White House officials disputed that assertion, saying Monday that McGahn was not made aware during the summer of any problems with Porter's clearance.

In November, the bureau delivered a thick file on Porter's background check to the security office and relayed that he was not likely to succeed in getting a permanent clearance, according to one person briefed on the case. Security office officials encouraged the FBI to complete its investigation so the office could make a final determination on Porter's clearance.

One person briefed on the situation, who had insisted on anonymity to discuss private deliberations, said late last week that the bureau had informed McGahn when the file was delivered that the accusations against Porter were likely to derail his security clearance. But on Monday, the person said he had been mistaken, and contended that McGahn had not learned of the FBI's communications to the security office until much later.

In Kushner's case, a final decision about a permanent security clearance is also still pending.

Lowell said it should not be surprising that someone with "the extent of his holdings, travels and lengthy submissions" would require a lengthy background check. But he took issue with the suggestion that the delays somehow affect Kushner's ability to do his job at the White House.

"This is just the latest," he said, "in unnamed sources quoting secondhand hearsay concerning Mr. Kushner that, like the others, will be shown to be untrue."

Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Adam Goldman contributed reporting.

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