In the wake of the news that former White House staff secretary Rob Porter did not have permanent security clearance for more than a year, the federal government should establish a more streamlined process for security clearances, ensuring only vetted personnel have access to highly classified information.
Since Porter resigned following public allegations of domestic violence, White House security clearances have fallen under increased scrutiny. In this process, reporters have uncovered that nearly 100 people working in the White House do not have the requisite credentials for handling sensitive material.
The arduous and arcane process of receiving a security clearance is being reexamined in light of new evidence that the West Wing shielded Porter from professional repercussions despite the alarming allegations levied against him. The FBI had interviewed his two ex-wives during an investigation into his security clearance. Additionally, the FBI had closed his case and alerted Chief of Staff John Kelly to its findings in July.
Many questions remain in the specific case of Porter’s resignation, including who knew what and when. A congressional committee has recently launched an investigation to answer some of these questions. However, the adjudication of these inquiries, according to reporting from inside the West Wing, may have implications for Kelly’s tenure as chief of staff. But one thing is certain: We want only the best staff handling classified intelligence in all levels of the government.
Even former Trump White House adviser Sebastian Gorka said, “The (security clearance) system as it applies to the top of federal government, to the White House, is fundamentally broken and exploitable by those with a partisan agenda.”
Currently, the process is extensive and inefficient. However, allocating more resources to the timely processing of these security clearances — and streamlining the process across multiple agencies — would result in more efficient processing and greater transparency within the system.
The process begins with all new employees completing an SF-86 — a form that can range from 40 to over 120 pages depending on how much information, including contacts with foreign governments, each person is required to disclose. While different processes exist for clearances on a congressional level, high-security White House clearances are processed by the FBI. This is where the process becomes murky, as little public information exists about the specifics. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the FBI findings are then passed to “the White House Personnel Security Office, who is the one that makes a recommendation for adjudication.”
Unfortunately, the White House Personnel Security Office is understaffed and subject to oversight from the administration itself, which means it lacks necessary independence. This presents a clear conflict of interest, evidenced by the fact that both Kelly and senior transition officials were aware of Porter’s history and yet were capable of signing a waiver to extend his provisional security clearance every 120 days.15 comments on this story
The Personnel Security Office should become an independent entity with a robust staff to process FBI cases and make decisions efficiently. Additionally, the FBI should have the capacity to recommend to congressional intelligence committees concerning findings from its investigations in closed hearings in the event it feels a staffer represents a threat to national security.
By modeling effective processing at the highest levels, the administration will signal a seriousness which likely would impact the congressional process — one which also struggles with extended periods of clearance processing. This procedural reform is arcane, but it may have drastic implications for our national security.