• How Security Clearances Work, and Fail, for Trump

    February 25, 2018

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    Posted in: Trump



    Over five million Americans, more than the population of Costa Rica, Ireland or New Zealand, hold a security clearance. These clearances are issued by the U.S. Government (via the Department of Defense, CIA, the State Department, etc.) and say as a result of an investigation the holder can be trusted to handle sensitive documents and duties.

    Of all those cleared people, some three dozen White House staffers, including the recently-resigned Rob Porter, have only “interim” security clearances. How does an interim clearance differ from a full one, how do you get cleared, and how did accused spouse abuser Porter stay on the job even after his past came to light?

    “Getting cleared” involves two broad steps, investigation and adjudication. Cases like Rob Porter’s expose the gap between the two, and the danger of using interim clearances as more than a temporary expedient for an often times slow process.


    Most everyone seeking a clearance begins at the same place, Standard Form 86, Questionnaire for National Security Positions. The SF-86 is a very detailed autobiography, raw material that fuels the rest of the process. Young people filling out their first SF-86 invariably end up on the phone to mom, gathering old addresses, birthdays of disconnected relatives, foreign countries visited on family trips and more, a lot more: the SF-86 runs some 133 pages. After the names and dates, the SF-86 dips into tough questions about financial problems, drugs, gambling, drinking, and mental health.

    Every applicant then gets run through a variety of databases. The goal is to verify quickly as much of the SF-86 as possible while at the same time skimming off the low-hanging fruit of obviously unqualified people. Checks are also run through various intelligence files (“National Agency Check.”) That all typically screens out 20-30% of candidates. It is likely it would have been at this point Rob Porter’s spousal abuse allegations would have come to light, as they were listed in easily accessible public records. He was not screened out.

    For some low-level clearances, the process can conclude there with a decision. For higher level clearances which will take additional time to complete, like Porter’s, an interim clearance up to the Top Secret level can be granted if the person needs to start work. There is no government-wide rule regarding interim clearances; they’re issued on a case-by-case basis.


    To secure a full high level clearance, next is a field investigation. Investigators (in the case of the White House, the FBI; agencies like State and CIA have their own teams) will visit an applicant’s old teachers, his neighbors, parents, and almost certainly the local police force to ask questions. This is old fashioned detective work, knocking on doors and eyeballing people who know the applicant. If an applicant lived abroad, the process is tasked out through the appropriate U.S. Embassy. Field investigations typically take at least a year, much longer for those with significant foreign contacts.

    Finally, for many positions, including those at the CIA and NSA, but usually not those at the White House, is the polygraph, the lie detector. The federal government polys about 70,000 people a year in connection with security clearances. In some instances, only a limited polygraph will be conducted, as opposed to a full-lifestyle test. In a “coordination of expectations” review, used in many military and update situations, only limited questions will be asked. Sometimes the subject will even know them in advance, such as “Have you transferred classified information without authorization?”

    No matter the technique, the point is the same: identify vulnerabilities to recruitment. Unlike in the high-tech world of the movies, most really useful information is obtained from people who hand it over to a foreign intelligence officer in return for something. The most common vulnerability is money, which is why persons with significant debt, bad credit, or gambling problems make poor security risks. “Foreign preference” plays a big role, especially for so-called hyphenated Americans (Greek-Americans, Chinese-Americans, etc.) who can be made to believe they are simply helping “the old country,” not hurting the U.S. Blackmail plays a role in fewer cases than commonly held; persons coerced into cooperating want nothing more than to escape their predicament. Persons cooperating for money want to cooperate more, for more money.


    Few people are perfect, few are really bad. Many hold great affection for their parents’ native land, but will it drive them to treason? People have debt, or drink, or cheat on their spouses, but is it “too much?” Someone has to make a decision. That decision – an adjudication – relies on human judgment applying agreed upon standards.

    Adjudication standards evolve with society. Once, any illegal drug use was a near-automatic rejection. Now most agencies use “The Obama Rule,” where limited youthful experimentation is generously taken in context. The watchword is mitigation, good things in someone’s record (such as the passage of time) that lessen the impact of bad ones. As student debt has risen, how much money a 22-year-old owes is seen differently today than it was in an era when more parents were able to pay for their kids’ education. One of the biggest changes has to do with LGBTQ applicants; gay men were once automatically labeled blackmail targets. The basics are online. Drugs? Right here.

    Yet for all the apparent clarity, the adjudication process often becomes entangled with the question of suitability (also called fitness), which is where the Rob Porter case crashed and burned. Just because someone is not vulnerable to recruitment doesn’t mean they are suitable. For example, a candidate who smoked a little weed in college isn’t likely to be turned by the Russians, but still might be unsuitable for an administration taking a hard line on drugs. At the same time, the process can be twisted so someone with a history of spousal abuse might still be seen suitable to work beside the president.

    In most agencies, particularly in the intelligence community, the agency itself investigates and adjudicates. In the case of the White House, however, the FBI does not determine whether someone receives a clearance; it only conducts the investigation. The adjudication is made by officials in the Executive Office of the President. Politics plays a role.


    In Porter’s case, adjudicating officials (suspicion focuses on chief of staff John Kelly) were aware of the spousal abuse allegations. They concluded he was not vulnerable enough to blackmail to prevent an interim clearance. Those same officials then applied a suitability standard wholly at odds with what the majority of society thinks to determine Porter, despite his history, was fit to work in the White House. Someone misplayed a process that was supposed to resolve Porter’s fitness to see classified material as also determining his broader responsibility for previous behavior.

    Those same officials understood Porter’s case would never pass the published standards for a full clearance, and hid their decision behind what appears to have been intended to be a forever interim clearance (the White House has since announced it will not issue interim clearances in most cases going forward.)

    This is not a system breakdown. It is a failure of one or more individuals to uphold the standards of the system. That is a topic very much worthy of Congressional investigation.




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    Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

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  • Recent Comments

    • John Poole said...

      1

      Can Kushner just ride it out indefinitely with an interim clearance while serving Trump? Kelly probably likes his job so it is unlikely he’ll force an approval or rejection. And if rejected can Kushner reapply-be given a temporary clearance and get another year without another rejection or approval?

      02/25/18 10:37 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      2

      “This is not a system breakdown. It is a failure of one or more individuals to uphold the standards of the system. That is a topic very much worthy of Congressional investigation.”

      Exactly. State’s security is compromised by its own security agency:

      WASHINGTON — The State Department has hired an alarming number of law-enforcement agents with criminal or checkered backgrounds because of a flawed hiring process, a stunning memo obtained by The Post reveals.

      The background problems are severe enough that many of the roughly 2,000 agents in State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security can play only limited roles in agency efforts to police bad conduct and prosecute wrongdoers.

      The problems in the bureau are the latest revelation in an exploding scandal that also involves accusations that members of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s security detail and those of the US ambassador to Belgium solicited prostitutes overseas.

      A whistleblower charges that State tried to cover up multiple scandals by removing them from an inspector general’s report.

      “Department intakes of new . . . officers since the hiring surge a decade ago have reportedly been flawed, with ‘mitigation’ of troubling histories including criminal matters,” according to a December 2012 memo to State Deputy Inspector General Harold Geisel from a team leader in the IG’s Office.

      The memo goes on to state that the troubling backgrounds can pose a problem if the agents are needed to testify at trials to assist prosecutors.

      “Too many people entering the [Diplomatic Security and Information Management] communities end up as subjects of [Special Investigation Division] investigations and HR adjudications, become Giglio-impaired and can play only limited roles thereafter,” according to the memo.

      “Giglio” refers to a US Supreme Court case dealing with jury notification that witnesses have made deals with the government to induce testimony.

      Some Diplomatic Security field offices “have major problems just waiting to be discovered,” the memo adds.

      Criminals clearing criminals. What can go wrong?

      Of course, Peter has experienced this himself.

      02/25/18 10:40 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      3

      Of course, we all can agree that no one with Trumpie’s sordid history could get a TS clearance.

      We all can also agree we wished Trumpie ran into that high school without a gun.

      02/26/18 8:50 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      4

      Basically, the Mueller investigation is 86ing Trump:

      “No matter the technique, the point is the same: identify vulnerabilities to recruitment. Unlike in the high-tech world of the movies, most really useful information is obtained from people who hand it over to a foreign intelligence officer in return for something. The most common vulnerability is money, which is why persons with significant debt, bad credit, or gambling problems make poor security risks.

      Persons cooperating for money want to cooperate more, for more money.”

      He went to Jared.

      02/27/18 8:55 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      5

      OK- enough of the security clearance thing. The protocols for granting top security clearance don’t apply under Trump. PVB you know that. Poor General Kelly-he likes his powerful position and doesn’t know how to handle the problem. But on to a much more important subject- Monica Lewinsky! Yes, like Hillary she is still around. She now says her affair wasn’t as simple as some say it was. Yes it was Monica. You schemed to have an affair with a married POTUS in the Oval Office. You loved the imbalance of power. Bubba played you but you loved that aspect being played and playing with the most powerful male in the universe at that time. That was the thrill. You are still an arrested development female at 44 and you still don’t get it. Put the Blue Dress up on Ebay and move on- use the money to buy a condo in Florida and disappear from public view.

      02/27/18 9:58 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      6

      Now that wife beater Robo Portman can’t keep his TS interim clearance, perhaps he can find work on Muellers team as the muscle to force uncooperative witnesses to tell what the hell happened with the Russia Trump meetings. First up, Hope Hicks.

      02/27/18 9:53 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      7

      Bauer- Hope doesn’t know much- she wasn’t paying attention
      – too busy fiddling with her hair and makeup.

      02/28/18 7:11 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      8

      You got to admit it would make a great scene for the movie, “DC Confidential.” Russell Crowe as Robo Porter.

      02/28/18 8:52 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      9

      Besides, Robo Portman can tell when Hope tells her white lies.

      02/28/18 12:40 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      10

      Demented, now what would you do?

      DALTON, Ga. — A teacher is in custody after police say he barricaded himself inside a classroom at a high school in northwest Georgia Wednesday, police say.

      Police responded to the report of shot or shots fired at Dalton High School in Dalton and reported via Twitter that a person, believed to be a teacher, was barricaded inside. A Dalton police spokesperson told CBS News the teacher had a gun.

      CBS affiliate WDEF reports the situation began around 11:30 a.m. when the teacher blocked students from entering his class. When the principal tried to unlock the door, they heard a gunshot inside and the school was evacuated.

      No other shots were fired during the incident, the station reports. They identified him as social studies teacher Jesse Randall Davidson, 53. Davidson is also the play by play voice of the Dalton football team, police said.

      Apparently they are waiting for Demented to arrive.

      02/28/18 2:50 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      11

      The NRA now knows what it feels to be the target:

      President Donald Trump criticized police for not doing more to prevent a mass shooting at a Florida high school, arguing they should have taken the shooter’s guns away “whether they had the right to or not.”

      Can’t find this one on the NRA talking points.

      02/28/18 3:57 PM | Comment Link

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