President Donald Trump ordered a top-secret security clearance for his son-in-law, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, over the objections of career officials, his former chief of staff, and the White House counsel, according to a bombshell New York Times story published Thursday night.
Former national security officials, lawyers who represent clients in security clearance cases, and others told ThinkProgress that giving Kushner access to top-secret information could jeopardize intelligence and security operations.
“It’s basically a disgrace,” said Steven Aftergood, an expert on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. “It’s a manipulation of a rule-based security system for personal advantage to the detriment of security.”
Trump reportedly ordered his former chief of staff John Kelly to grant Kushner a top-secret clearance over the objections of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the agency that performed Kushner’s background check; the White House personnel security office; former White House counsel Donald McGahn; and former chief of staff John Kelly.
Kushner and other administration officials reportedly had temporary clearances before Kelly revoked them on taking over as chief of staff. That decision triggered Trump to order a permanent Top Secret clearance for Kushner.
Both Kelly and McGahn were so disturbed by the order that they wrote internal memos to memorialize their concerns, according to The Times.
Kushner did not receive the highest level of security clearance, which allows the holder to see “secure compartmented information.”
Top Secret information, the kind Kushner is able to see with his clearance, said former Central Intelligence Agency analyst John Nixon, “usually refers to signals intel [intercepted signals or communications] or clandestine reports from CIA. It usually reflects a higher sensitivity in terms of sourcing.”
Nixon was apoplectic when speaking about someone of Kushner’s “caliber” — who operates in a transactional nature — seeing Top Secret information. Intelligence professionals, he said, are “sensitized about protecting sources and methods. You could get into a lot of trouble if you were careless.”
He added that Kushner “has no experience handling such information and probably does not understand the need to protect sources and methods. I suspect that he has already compromised [Top Secret] info in some of his interactions with the UAE and KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia].”
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, has reportedly said that Kushner told him the names of Saudis who may be disloyal ahead of a crackdown on dissent, according to The Intercept.
Leaks will alert those who are being surveilled or watched, said Nixon. “They will shut down. They will be fully sensitized to the fact that the Americans are listening in on their conversations and they will take steps to do something about that, which cuts down on your ability to learn about what’s going on,” said Nixon. “And you are burning yourself.”
The fact that Kelly put his concerns about Kushner’s clearance in writing signals that the retired general knew that Kushner isn’t “smart enough to know what he’s doing or care what he’s doing.”
As Kelly would surely know, there are protocols and safeguards that are “drilled into” intelligence agents, said Nixon. Kushner, who he says has an “all-encompassing sense of entitlement,” has access to sensitive information and seems unlikely to follow rules set up to protect such information.
He noted that Kushner’s meetings in places such as Saudi Arabia are followed by “dramatic events.” For instance, Nixon points to over 200 members of the wealthy Saudi elite being detained in a hotel last year as part of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman [MBS] “anti-corruption purge” (ultimately shaking them down for cash before releasing them).
This was seen largely as MBS punishing those he saw challenging his power, and it happened less than two weeks after Kushner made an unannounced trip to Saudi Arabia. There have been reports of Kushner leaking intelligence to MBS, and Nixon felt that the list of “disloyal” Saudis “was all derived from signal intelligence,” said Nixon.
The House Oversight Committee began a broad investigation in January into how the White House handled security clearances for Kushner and other administration officials, and it has asked the administration for documents and interviews related to those decisions.
“To date, the White House has not produced a single document or scheduled a single interview,” the committee’s chair, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), said in a statement after The Times published its report. “The Committee expects full compliance with its requests as soon as possible, or it may become necessary to consider alternative means to compel compliance.”
The security clearance process has long been plagued by massive backlogs for both initial clearances and adjudicating appeals on clearance decisions. Last June, the administration began moving responsibility for many background check investigations away from the Office of Personnel Management to the Defense Department.
Experts say the system is badly in need of an overhaul. But security clearance lawyers who spoke to ThinkProgress did not see Trump’s order on Kushner as a valid course correction.
“This is pretty bad,” said Andrew Bakaj, a former CIA and Defense Department official who is now a partner at Compass Rose Legal Group.
Trump has the legal authority to grant Kushner a clearance, Bakaj said. But he raised concerns about Kushner’s foreign contacts, his foreign business dealings, and especially about news reports that Kushner met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition to set up a back channel with the Kremlin.
“Why would he want to conceal his communications with a foreign adversary from our own intelligence services?” Bakaj said.
Kel McClanahan, a Washington, D.C.-area lawyer who works with clients on security clearance cases, echoed Bakaj’s concerns about Kushner’s security clearance.
“I can think of half a dozen of my clients with far fewer complicating factors [than Kushner] who would never get even the lowest security clearance,” McClanahan said.
McClanahan noted that being denied a security clearance doesn’t mean the person has done anything wrong — just that career intelligence officials see them as a potential risk. In that sense, the security clearance system is designed to be unfair.
While many people are denied a security clearance unfairly, McClanahan said, the system treated Kushner the same way it treats everyone else.
“And he had someone to come in and fix it for him,” he said.