The Security Hole in the White House

by Paul R. Pillar

As anyone who has not been in a sensory deprivation tank for the past two years knows, quite a big deal was made of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. President Trump has continued to refer from time to time to Clinton’s emails. The highlighting of this matter has been a big partisan game, of course, played for electoral purposes all out of proportion to the offense in question.

Any legitimate concern about such an offense is twofold. One issue is the integrity and preservation of what should properly be considered government records. This aspect has not gotten most of the attention; ranting about compliance with the Federal Records Act is not the kind of stuff that makes for winning political campaigns.

The other issue involves the protection of classified information, or what should be considered classified. What Hillary Clinton did was certainly what working stiffs in the national security bureaucracy would recognize as a violation of the rules or at least of good practices, for which they would be disciplined if they tried to do it themselves. The security issue, however—and nothing has come to light to suggest any actual compromise of the material involved—is more complicated. The issue is not so much one of using a private server versus a government one. Unclassified government systems are not necessarily any less subject to—and may even be a more inviting target for—hostile penetration than the server in the Clintons’ basement. The relevant question was more one of how far to try to talk, or write, around the edges of classified matters when communicating through unclassified channels while still performing efficiently the duties of secretary of state.

These are fine points and nuances compared to the far more fundamental security problem when access to classified information is intentionally given to those who should not have such access. That is the situation currently prevailing in the Trump White House. The problem belatedly surfaced with the case of now-dismissed staff secretary Rob Porter. If Porter had been an applicant for an ordinary position in the bureaucracy requiring a security clearance, he would not have gotten it. What we now know—and what the FBI reportedly determined in conducting a background investigation, including credible accusations from two former spouses of domestic abuse—almost certainly would have disqualified him.

To understand why, two further points need to be recognized. First, a security clearance is not like a judgment in a criminal court, in which a defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty. In judgments about granting clearances, any presumption is in the direction of safeguarding national security. No one has a right to a job requiring a clearance. It is not punishment to fail to land such a job. The critical question is whether, given whatever uncertainties there may be about the applicant, it is worth taking the risk of entrusting the nation’s secrets to that person.

Second, the criteria for granting or denying clearances include not just specific security concerns such as foreign contacts but also what are called suitability issues. Basically these involve the question of whether the person is of good character. This is relevant because sound or unsound character in one part of a person’s life tends to be displayed as well in other parts. Can someone who has repeatedly disregarded his marriage vows, to the point of physical violence, be trusted to uphold commitments about handling classified information? Moreover, to the extent there are any as-yet-unrevealed skeletons in the closet, there always is the possibility of blackmail and exploitation by hostile powers.

The Porter case also has brought to light how other senior figures in the Trump White House have been operating there for a year without having obtained clearances. This includes Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and adviser who seems to have access to just about anything sensitive in foreign policy and other matters. That a clearance still eludes Kushner likely reflects not only the complexity of his file but also the number and seriousness of the red flags in it. These include financial difficulties stemming from real-estate blunders and a meeting with a Russian banker that may have been part of an effort to overcome those difficulties and may have gotten into other matters. Kushner’s file also includes his failure in earlier written declarations to reveal all his foreign contacts. Kushner is another denizen of this White House who, if he were an applicant for a more ordinary government job requiring a clearance, probably would be turned down.

The White House has brushed all this aside by letting people like Porter and Kushner operate with “temporary” or “interim” clearances with access to everything. This makes a mockery of the whole concept of security clearances and of using them, and the background investigations on which they are based, to determine who does and does not get access to sensitive material. There is such a thing as a temporary or interim clearance elsewhere in the government, but always with strict and significant restrictions (such as no access to top secret documents) on what the person can see. The current White House’s approach is a way of saying it just doesn’t care about safeguarding the nation’s secrets.

All this constitutes a significant security problem, with or without the Russian connections that seem so prevalent in this administration. When former director of national intelligence James Clapper observed that Russian president and ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin appeared to be handling Trump like “an asset,” he may have been speaking more in a political sense than an intelligence sense. But this White House has some attractive targets, including not just the president, for any hostile intelligence service. And the potential intelligence payoff for an adversary of any recruitment there would be huge.

Meanwhile, it is hard to take seriously anything that this White House, or anyone who provides political cover for its conduct, says about security. It also is understandable for workers in the bureaucracy to view with cynicism how senior members of this administration believe that rules and standards that others are supposed to observe do not apply to them. They have seen it regarding such personal conduct as sexual predation, with the predator-in-chief having gotten off free. They have seen it regarding government ethics, with Trump shamelessly profiting personally from government business while the bureaucrats are barred from accepting a lunch that costs any more than twenty dollars. And now they see it on matters at the heart of the nation’s security.

Photo: Jared Kushner (Joint Chiefs of Staff via Flickr).

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).