One of the headline stories of the day is that scores of workers in the Trump White House do not have security clearances and this poses a very serious threat to the Republic. To further vilify the Trump administration, critics suggest that this proves that all those workers are unqualified or unfit because they do not have security clearance. They also suggest that this is just another example of the chaotic Trump management.
That is pretty much the elitist media narrative. Right? This might not be entirely true. And what bothers me a bit is that many of those more senior Washington-based reporters know better.
For those with birth dates preceding the election of President Clinton may recall the controversy in the early days of the Obama administration. Seems like a lot of those young – and not so young — left wingers running around the White House lacked security clearance. In fact, many never got a top-secret clearance during their career at the White House.
This is not even a criticism of President Obama. When I worked at the White House during the Nixon administration (and yes, I am that old), I did not have any official clearance. If the FBI checked me out at all, it is news to me.
In a FOX News segment, a former White House security officer explained that full background checks can take a long time – especially for individuals who never had one. She said it is not unusual for people to be working without a formal clearance. It was also stated that those with previous government jobs are likely to have clearances, although not always Top Secret. Others knowledgeable with the process have noted that the FBI does not always work at warp speed, especially if preliminary investigative work does not reveal any problems.
We also must keep in mind that the red flags in clearance investigations are serious criminal activities and, most importantly, actions against the interest of the nation. Being a one-time member of the Communist Party would garner a lot more attention than being a traffic ticket scofflaw. Extra-marital affairs, past or present, are not on the “do not hire” list. The main purpose of the clearance process is to see if a person represents a threat to the security of the country, not if they are eligible to enter heaven. While the spousal abuse accusations against Rob Porter are horrendous when seen through the lens of our contemporary political culture, they probably were not of red flag status at the time of the investigation. This was evident in the fact that he passed whatever background check that got him his earlier job on Capitol Hill.
Apart from good old fashion treason, the background check is to determine if the person might be exposed to blackmail should Vladimir Putin discover some nasty business in a key player’s past. This is given a lot of credence in the public press, but not so much by the investigators. Unless there is a huge sin in the past or some ongoing contemporary criminal mischief (note the word “criminal”), the blackmail threat is rather minuscule.
Clearance disqualification changes with the changing times. Way back in the Johnson Administration, the President’s closest aide and 25-year friend, Walter Jenkins, was caught in an adult homosexual encounter at a local Washington YMCA. He was immediately fired and shunned. Today, homosexuality would not be a red flag for clearance investigators. Politically, it might even be a resume enhancer.
We should also keep in mind that having a security clearance is no guarantee. I know that from personal experience. When I was president of the Knox College Young Republicans, I recruited a guy named Robert Hanssen. If the name has a ring of familiarity, you may recall that in later years he rose in the ranks of the FBI with all the requisite clearances. He also became the first FBI official to betray his country by becoming one of the most notorious and damaging spies in American history – and that takes some doing.
The subject of White House clearances came up on CNN (over and over, as a matter of fact). In one segment, Van Jones was asked to comment on the current White House controversy. Although he seemed a bit uncomfortable in his own words, he was surprisingly deferential to the Trump administrations – minimizing the problem by saying it is a human process with human mistakes. These things can happen.
As Jones spoke, I was doing a bit of private chuckling. I wondered how he would handle that question. I also wondered how he or CNN would have had him on that particular panel of commentators.
Those with the gift of memory will recall that Van Jones was one of those White House appointees who could not get passed the clearance process even as he served alongside President Obama. He was the environmental czar. It was not the FBI that red-flagged the Jones job in the White House. It was information leaked by Republicans to the news media.
Jones had been an organizer of the radical left’s “truther” campaign that claimed the Bush administration was behind the attack on the New York Trade Towers. He was on videotape branding all Republicans as “assholes” – a word that only invokes mild rebukes in today’s culture.
Jones was also an outspoken advocate for Mumia Abu-Jamala, a convict cop killer. Jones had been repeatedly arrested for left-wing demonstrations in several cities. He was one of the founders of STORM, a radical revolutionary group with Marxist leanings that praised Mao Tse Tung.
Jones freely admitted to his being a Communist revolutionary, saying: “I met all these radical young people of color, I mean really radical, communists and anarchists. It was like ‘this is what I need to be a part of.’ I spent the next 10 years of my life working with a lot of those people I met in jail, trying to be a revolutionary.” Responding to the acquittal of the police who beat Rodney King in 1992, Jones said definitively that “By August, I was a communist.”
His radical politics were also highly racist. He brought to his White House environmental job the view that “the white polluters and white environmentalists are essentially steering poison into the people-of-color communities.” Real Clear Politics ran a 2009 headline, “How Could Obama Have Hired Van Jones?”
Today, Jones has his own show on CNN, which apparently has a substantially different clearing or qualifying process than our government.
For all his faults, and for all the desires to punish him extra-legally, Rob Porter was never a threat to the Republic – only to his wives. That is not to minimize the gravity of his alleged actions, but to draw attention to a notable distinction when it comes to the rationale behind security clearances.
We also must keep in mind that White House clearances are exceptional. In most sensitive positions, a clearance is required to get the job. No security clearance. No job. In the White House, the President has the final say on who gets hired. He can wave security clearances if he wishes because … well … he’s the boss – just as he can declassify any document he wishes.
In pointing out the traditional weakness in the security clearance process, one should not infer that I approve. I strongly support a more effective and efficient process. While I do understand that new administrations will have scores of people on board pending a clearance approval, the process should be expedited by establishing a time frame, such as six months from the date of hiring.