Energy & Environment

Republicans request documents on Kerry’s security clearance process

John Kerry
(Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP) (Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images)

Republicans on the House Oversight and Reform Committee are requesting documents from the White House regarding Special Climate Envoy John Kerry’s security clearance after Iran’s foreign minister reportedly said Kerry informed him of Israeli attacks on Iranian interests in Syria.

“We are conducting oversight of Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry’s reported decision to provide potentially classified intelligence to Iran,” they said in a Tuesday letter to White House counsel Dana Remus. The letter was signed by all but three of the Republicans on the panel.

In the letter, spearheaded by the panel’s top Republican, Rep. James Comer (Ky.), the lawmakers raised concerns about “Kerry’s fitness to serve in his current role with the National Security Council (NSC) and whether these allegations should affect Secretary Kerry’s ability to maintain a security clearance.”

They argued that the allegations against Kerry show a need to review his security clearances and asked for documents on “what, if any steps, the White House has taken to review the allegations and ensure our nation’s security.”

The GOP lawmakers asked Remus for documents and communications related to Kerry’s security clearances, including any information he provided in response to questions about any foreign contacts, activities, business and travel.

They also sought White House and Biden transition team communications and documents surrounding Kerry’s background investigation, White House clearances or security clearances and documents “sufficient to show” whether Kerry had been granted access to classified information pending a permanent security clearance.

The New York Times and other outlets reported last week that in leaked audio recorded in March, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that Kerry told him Israel had attacked Iran’s interests in Syria at least 200 times.

Zarif reportedly expressed astonishment at the revelation and did not say when Kerry, who served as secretary of State between 2013 and 2017, made the admission. 

Kerry denied the allegations in a tweet last week, saying, “This never happened – either when I was Secretary of State or since.”

State Department spokesperson Ned Price didn’t comment on the contents of the reportedly leaked audio last week but appeared to dismiss that the Iranian foreign minister’s astonishment was genuine.

“I would just make the broad point that if you go back and look at press reporting from the time, this certainly was not secret, and governments that were involved were speaking to this publicly, on the record,” he said in response to a reporter’s question last week.

A State Department spokesperson declined to comment, saying the agency doesn’t comment on congressional correspondence. The Hill has also reached out to the White House and NSC for comment. 

In 2019, Democrats looked into the security clearance process related to Trump officials including then-presidential son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, then-national security adviser John Bolton and former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in December 2017.

In Tuesday’s letter, the Republicans cited the prior investigation by Democrats, saying “the allegations related to Secretary Kerry necessitate a similar review.”

Kel McClanahan, executive director of National Security Counselors law firm and a law professor at George Washington University, told The Hill that while Congress can’t strip or grant clearances to specific officials, they can investigate.

“Even the most die-hard congressional advocates would say ‘but Congress cannot say John Smith shall have a clearance or shall not have a clearance,’ that the actual final … authority is executive,” McClanahan said.

He also said that typically, if an administration official returns after their clearance has lapsed, they’ll still have to undergo a review, but it may be a lighter one, especially if they are a higher-up official.

“Could Congress mandate that the clearance process be the same for everybody? Definitely,” he said. “Until they do, it is entirely a discretionary function.”

A Justice Department legal opinion from 2017 also says that individual members of Congress, including committee ranking members, don’t have the authority to conduct oversight without a specific delegation by a full committee, but may request information from the executive branch.

In his role as special envoy, Kerry coordinates the Biden administration’s diplomatic efforts on climate, as it seeks to push other countries to step up their fights against climate change.

He also has a seat at the NSC, where leaders have access to significant levels of U.S. intelligence.

Updated at 6:44 p.m.

Tags Dana Remus James Comer Jared Kushner John Bolton John Kerry Security clearance U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate United States National Security Council
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