White House

Government security clearances, not Rob Porter, are the real issue

Domestic violence is a crime, whether one works in the White House or the local 7-Eleven. As I write this, the full story of Rob Porter's exit from the West Wing as White House staff secretary has yet to be clarified. Having worked briefly under Gen. John Kelly, after he came on board as our new White House chief of staff, I found him to be the consummate professional, a man who lived up to his Marine Corps reputation and who was as decisive as he is efficient.

I therefore find it very difficult to believe any of the allegations currently being made against him. The question of how a man with Porter's record worked for as long as he did inside the White House remains an important one, and we will know more about who knew what, when, in the near future. But the "Porter case" illuminates a much more consequential issue, one that can potentially cripple our national security: Who truly controls the process of vetting appointees and officials for White House clearances?

The 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. Working for the most powerful man in the world as a politically commissioned officer is not only a unique honor, it entails unusual processes and personnel-handling protocols.

All such appointees must file the standard SF-86 clearance form via the eQIP system providing details of the individual's family members, past employment, friends, references and, importantly, the foreign nationals with whom they maintain ongoing relations. Depending on one's age and how many foreign nationals the individual knows, the completed form can run from less than 40 pages to more than 100 pages and, once completed, the form itself constitutes a classified document.

The eQIP submission to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is the basis for the "single scope" background investigation executed by government officials who must corroborate the information, interview the references, friends and neighbors listed, and the appointee themselves. In the meantime, in order to facilitate the subject's capacity to start working for the administration, the White House makes an expedite request to the OPM for an interim clearance that, in most cases, is granted rapidly, based as it is on an expedited search as to whether the political appointee has any criminal record or derogatory history in government databases.

This is where things can get interesting. The investigation process to hopefully turn an interim clearance into a permanent one can be lengthy and has multiple masters. The OPM is the primary overseer of the process via its recently formed National Background Investigation Bureau, which works with other agencies to acquire requisite data, including the FBI, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the CIA.

For a Top Secret clearance, the FBI SF-86 investigators will make the determination as to whether or not the individual's background - and any potential vulnerability - poses a threat to the nation's security. If the appointee requires an even higher clearance (for example, managing sensitive materials within the National Security Council, or working directly with the president or vice president), they need not only Top Secret access but also a Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) level of access.

This SCI portion of the clearance for a White House employee falls under the ODNI - in practice, the CIA. Eventually, after what can be a year or more, the investigators at the FBI and the bureaucrats at Langley finish their investigation and forward the result to the Office of Personnel Security at the White House. This small office, with a fraction of the capabilities of the exterior agencies, makes the final recommendation to the White House chief of staff as to whether the individual should receive permanent, full clearance.

Interestingly, even if the FBI and CIA say there is some reason to deny a clearance (for example, prior drug use), the president has the authority to issue an individual waiver, since he is the head of the executive branch that runs the whole system for classified materials and because the White House is its own "adjudication authority." This is how Ben Rhodes, President Obama's deputy national security adviser, spent all eight years in the West Wing after the FBI denied him even an interim security clearance.

Nevertheless, the fact that all the substantive work for determining one's eligibility to work in the West Wing is executed by intelligence agencies outside the White House is a problem. Over last eight years of the previous administration, it is clear that the intelligence community became deeply politicized. The "FISAgate" scandal has already led to eight senior FBI and DOJ officials being fired, reassigned or "retiring early" as a result of their association with partisan actions related to the Clinton and Russia investigations, as well as political bias revealed in numerous FBI text messages.

Add to that the recent contradictory statements made by President Obama's CIA director, John Brennan, with regard to how the Russia investigation was initiated, and we must ask a simple question: Can agencies whose highest levels were permeated with demonstrable political bias be relied upon to act in good faith when handling the clearances of a new administration? My personal experience says no.

In my time in the White House, I witnessed multiple instances when those who were meant to be working for the president were subtly yet effectively obstructionists. Soon after arriving, as we were building the Office of Chief Strategist to the President, I decided to detail three FBI employees over to the White House to work on counterterrorism issues. These were individuals who had studied under me at graduate school and who were eminently capable.

Their being detailed from one branch of federal government to work in the White House should have been a simple human resources exercise. It was not. FBI management slow-rolled the detailing process for six months and sidelined the three individuals into dead-end "busy work" as punishment for being requested by name by the Trump administration. As one senior agent later shared with me, "Understand this: The seventh floor of the FBI looks at the Trump White House as the enemy."

During the same period I witnessed superb candidates for senior positions on the National Security Council be similarly delayed and obstructed by the CIA, which has the power to deny the SCI portion of an appointee's clearance. In another case, a Department of Defense detailee to the White House had his clearance pulled because his Pentagon boss resented his being elevated to the White House.

It is true that Donald Trump was the rank outsider when he ran for president and that no one in the establishment expected him to win. Remember, the New York Times gave Hillary Clinton a greater than 90 percent chance of victory. But at 12 p.m. on Jan. 20, 2017, Trump became the 45th president of the United States, the person for whom the intelligence community exists, to inform him and his decision-making for the nation.

As such, the vetting and clearance system is there to serve the chief executive of the nation. Instead, far too often, it has been perverted so as to undermine his ability, and his team's ability, to serve the nation. The intelligence community exists to serve all presidents, Republican or Democrat, establishment maven or insurgent outsider.

Rob Porter is gone. It is now time for President Trump to reassert control over the process of how clearances are obtained for those who work for him. Political bias can have no place in adjudicating who is granted a security clearance in the United States.

Sebastian Gorka, Ph.D., is a national security strategist with Fox News and former deputy assistant and strategist to President Trump. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller "Defeating Jihad: The Winnable War." You can follow him on Twitter @SebGorka.

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