It was announced this week that President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner had his security clearance downgraded from top secret (TS) to secret, which prevents him from receiving the most sensitive US intelligence.
There are two aspects to this issue - Kushner’s failure to get a top secret clearance and the flawed American security clearance process. However, the focus has primarily been on Kushner.
However, the story is much more complex. Those who are familiar with the granting of top secret clearances know that they take time and are hard to get. They require a review of every place the person has lived and worked. It involves interviews of people who have known the person, credit ratings, and a review of the person’s travel. This is one reason why companies and agencies prefer to hire people who have had top secret clearances in the past because contrary to getting new clearances, the process of renewing a TS clearance is quicker and there isn’t the same risk of failing to get the clearance.
The process for getting a US government clearance was so difficult that there have been reports that people who would normally not be eligible for a TS clearance have been cleared. The result is a flood of people who have leaked or passed on TS intelligence to foreign powers.
This issue is an old one and there were people in previous Administrations who were ineligible to receive a TS clearance
More than a year into Bill Clinton’s first term, of 1,044 White Houser personnel, nearly 100 had no security clearance at all, according to press reports in 1994. The scandal alarmed both Republicans and Democrats on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, who wrote to CIA Director James Woolsey on March 17, 1994.
“…What specific steps…have [you] taken to ensure that information classified to protect intelligence sources and methods has not been made available to individuals on the White House staff who do not have appropriate clearances[?],” they asked.
At the time, The Washington Times reported that more than 500 of the 1,000 background checks of Clinton personnel “would have prevented the people [involved] from obtaining security clearances at the FBI, Defense Department or CIA.”
More recently, the Pentagon was forced last year to rescind interim security clearances granted under the Obama administration to at least 165 contractors linked to various crimes, according to a report issued by the Director of the Defense Security Service (DSS).
According to the report, DOD contractors preserved their ability to access sensitive government information despite prior criminal records and other illicit past activity that the Pentagon’s vetting process failed to detect. Illicit activities highlighted in the Pentagon report ranged from suspicious financial dealings to concerns that influence from foreign governments potentially compromised the contractors in question.
In other words, the Pentagon subjected the contractors to the first round of vetting under Obama and the Trump administration discovered their deception 2017.
There are many factors that can mean having a TS clearance being refused. They include: failure to document every day of the person’s life, questionable financial or credit history, travel to questionable countries or areas, risky personal habits like gambling, suspicious employers, organizations the person has been associated with, questionable academic records, or questionable friends or relatives.
In fact, the failure rate for TS clearances was so high that some factors like drug usage or sexual lifestyle were eliminated to increase the number of people getting TS clearances.
What this means is that the older a person is, the more likely that some piece of suspicious information is in one’s background. Obviously, it’s easier to get a TS clearance if one is either young or has been in government their entire working career. It’s also harder if one has been in the private sector for most of their life. In the case of someone who has vast financial entanglements, it can be even harder.
Therefore, it isn’t a total surprise that all White House aides working on the highest-level interim security clearance were informed last Friday that they will have their clearance downgraded from Top Secret, including Kushner.
The Kushner Factor
As a result, it is not hard to believe that Kushner failed to get a TS clearance. And, although Kushner’s failure doesn’t mean he is a security risk, it has certainly become a political issue – especially for those Trump opponents who have questioned Kushner’s involvement in the Trump Administration.
As of this writing it was reported that Jared Kushner’s family business received hundreds of millions of dollars in loans from two firms after their executives took part in meetings with President Donald Trump’s son-in-law in the White House.
According to The New York Times, Kushner, a senior White House adviser, met with the co-founder of private equity firm Apollo Global Management, Joshua Harris, and the chief executive of banking giant Citigroup, Michael L. Corbat, before Kushner Companies received a combined $509 million from them.
Many had expected that Trump would grant Kushner a waiver, even though Trump himself said last Friday that he would let Chief of Staff John Kelly decide if such an exception should be granted. In a statement issued last week, Kelly said that any changes to Kushner's security clearance wouldn't impact his ability to do his job.
"As I told Jared days ago, I have full confidence in his ability to continue performing his duties in his foreign policy portfolio including overseeing our Israeli-Palestinian peace effort and serving as an integral part of our relationship with Mexico," Kelly said in the statement.
Former Clinton campaign manager John Podesta raised some eyebrows in a Tuesday tweet directed at Kushner, amid accusations that "officials in at least four countries" had discussed ways to manipulate him.
"Jared better start wearing his kevlar on his back," Podesta tweeted after suggesting that Kushner's troubles had just begun - referencing a widely mocked picture taken Iraq of Jared awkwardly wearing a bulletproof vest over a blazer.
The Washington Post - where John Podesta does some work, reported that officials from at least four countries - China, Israel, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates have explored ways to manipulate Kushner by taking advantage of his "complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience." The story cited current and former US intelligence officials - and noted that it is unclear on whether the cited countries took any action.
White House officials, including National Security Advisor HR McMaster were reportedly uncomfortable about some of Kushner's contacts, and eventually worked out a system where any contacts he had with foreign officials were to be carefully monitored.
Officials in the White House were concerned that Kushner was “naive and being tricked” in conversations with foreign officials, some of whom said they wanted to deal only with Kushner directly and not more experienced personnel, said one former White House official.
According to the Washington Post, Kushner has an unusually complex set of business arrangements and foreign entanglements for a senior White House aide. But his behavior while in office has only drawn more scrutiny and raised concerns that he would be unable to obtain a final security clearance, which he needs to perform the many jobs Trump has entrusted to him, from negotiating foreign trade deals to overseeing a Middle East peace process.
However, trying to influence foreign officials isn’t new or limited to Kushner. The Washington Post article also noted the notion that foreign governments routinely discuss how they can influence senior administration officials - not just Kushner.
“Foreign governments routinely discuss ways they can influence senior officials in all administrations.” In fact, the CIA has a department of psychologists that focus on making psychological profiles of foreign officials and how to influence them.
“Every country will seek to find their point of leverage,” said one person familiar with intelligence intercepts of foreign officials discussing Kushner.
Manipulation and exploitation becomes a lot easier when a target has secrets of their own — undisclosed or misreported contacts with foreign nationals, unethical business ties, affairs, drug use, gambling debt — anything an individual doesn’t want coming out publicly. The massive Chinese hack of the US Office of Personnel Management is believed to have been aimed at uncovering sensitive personal information that the Chinese could use to blackmail U.S. government employees.
Soviet operatives during the Cold War, and Russian intelligence services up through the present, have used “kompromat” – or compromising material – to blackmail targets into doing what they want.
Consequently, Kushner - with an unusually complex set of business holdings and a family company facing significant debt issues – is more susceptible than most White House officials.
One vulnerability is Kushner's family business having money troubles tied to 666 Fifth Avenue, New York City “the most expensive building ever purchased.” This makes any debt bailout suspicious.
Can Kushner Still Operate In the White House?
Contrary to news reports, Kushner can still work with a Secret clearance. While some information (probably relating to sources of intelligence) will be withheld, he still has access to sensitive information. In fact, it has to be remembered that most government employees don’t even have a secret clearance, but still can do their job.
But, the threat isn’t only what Kushner may reveal. This information will undoubtedly also put more pressure on already strained relationships with foreign intelligence partners. The world intelligence community now knows that people who federal investigators haven’t deemed eligible to handle classified intelligence are, handling classified intelligence. This means America’s allies will be loath to share highly sensitive information with America – especially intelligence that may pass across Kushner’s desk.
As far as Middle Eastern negotiations go, it means that Israel and the Palestinian Authority – plus other Middle Eastern nations will be less than candid when negotiating with Kushner. They will also try to divine his weaknesses so they can exploit them.
But, the problem is greater than Kushner. The levels of leaks and outright transfers of sensitive intelligence to foreign powers have grown – not only in the US, but in other countries. This is probably the greatest intelligence security problem since the 1950s, when Britain discovered that members of the upper classes weren’t good security risks.
Worldwide, intelligence agencies need to reconfigure their standards of deciding who is worthy of a security clearance. What that standard is, however, is currently unknown.