After reports hit the news that over 130 of the more-or-less-randomly-promoted angry teens in the White House were working without full security clearances as of November, including top aides with access to highly classified intel like Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s administration says it will overhaul its process for granting staff security credentials.
Per the New York Times, a Friday memo from Chief of Staff John Kelly conceded there are serious problems with the way the administration has handled clearances and said the White House will now work to ensure all staff have proper review before coming into contact with classified material. It also said staff working with interim clearances will have them revoked by February 23rd, raising the prospect that personnel including Ivanka Trump and Kushner will be kept in a sort of official limbo while the FBI reviews their personal histories and potential ways they could be bribed or blackmailed.
Kelly also requested the FBI begin reporting issues uncovered during the clearance process directly to the White House counsel, Don McGahn II, the Times added:
The changes that Mr. Kelly has ordered suggest that the process for reviewing background investigations and deciding about security clearances had all but broken down during the first year of the Trump administration.
He said that the White House should “develop and implement written protocols governing the review of security files,” suggesting that such written guidelines did not exist.
Mr. Kelly said that the F.B.I. should communicate “significant derogatory information” about a White House employee in 48 hours — an admission that it has taken much longer than that since Mr. Trump became president.
Additionally, Kelly seemed to admit that the White House needed to take steps to keep “certain highly classified information” out of the hands of interim security clearance holders, a clear indication that too much of that information has been shared with improperly vetted personnel.
While this particular round of scurrying was set afoot in large part by news one of Trump’s top aides, staff secretary Rob Porter, was allowed to remain in his sensitive role at the White House for months after the FBI discovered domestic abuse allegations against him, the first year of the Trump administration was rife with other breaches of security and technical gaffes.
It took a year for the White House to ban unsecured personal cell phones despite numerous leaks and security issues, numerous staff including Kushner were warned against and then continued to use poorly secured personal email accounts, cybersecurity at facilities like Trump’s Florida golf club is next to nil, and staffers have fumbled with such basic tasks as muting a conference call with journalists. Senior White House IT and cybersecurity staff all fled when Trump took office, which might help explain things like senior personnel getting tricked into arguing with email pranksters. The presidency himself used his unsecured phone at least a month into his term and possibly longer, which isn’t surprising given he barely seems able to keep track of his own favored surveillance laws.
All of these potential vulnerabilities are worsened by having staff that haven’t been cleared running around the White House, and while making them pass the FBI background checks could solve one part of the problem, it’s not going to do much to prevent them from continued carelessness. As NBC noted, Trump has the power to simply grant whoever he wants a clearance anyhow, and if any president feels inclined to overrule the best advice available to him it’s this one.