The Trump administration has been plagued by criticism of its unprecedented disorganization and conflicts of interests. Those accusations may or may not be true. But the administration has also been criticized — and rightly so — for setting new records for the length of “interim” security clearances for its staffers. In one of the more egregious examples, presidential son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner possessed a temporary “top secret” clearance for more than a year until, amid intense media pressure, it was finally downgraded to “secret” last week.
Kushner’s apparent demotion has raised a whole host of questions. For example, can he continue to do his job with less than complete intelligence exposure, including overseeing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process? “New appointees often do their work with an interim clearance for a time while the FBI checks into their background,” Vox contributor Andrew Prokop writes, “but this generally doesn’t take 13 months, especially if an appointee holds a role as high-level and important as Kushner’s.”
The reasons for the delay in Kushner’s permanent security clearance have not been made public. But whatever process existed in previous administrations — granting temporary clearances to key personnel, who might then be weeded out in fairly short order — has not worked here. That it took more than a year to downgrade Kushner’s clearance has also caused speculation about palace intrigue at the White House that supposedly pits Kushner and his wife Ivanka against Chief of Staff John Kelly.
Putting all those distraction aside, if Kushner’s background checks are continuing — as has been reported — why downgrade his clearance at all? If he was slated for top secret clearance because he needed that level of clearance for his assigned responsibilities, not having it would presumably hamstring him in his job. On the other hand, if he can do his job with the lower secret clearance, as the White House has argued, then he shouldn’t have needed top secret clearance in the first place.
And what of Kushner’s image and prestige as a senior adviser to the president? Will downgraded security status tarnish his image among domestic and international leaders with whom he has to deal?
President Trump has asserted that Kushner’s clearance problems reflect the fact that the security clearance system is broken. We’re not so sure. Indeed, it wasn’t the “system” that entrusted top secret materials to Kushner; it was the White House. And while the president is entitled to disclose whatever he wishes to those who are working with him, doing so in a case involving a son-in-law who is known to have security clearance issues sends a particularly troubling message.
That brings us back to the concerns about disorganization at the White House, and gives credence to the claim that this administration seems to prefer cultivating chaos rather than governing through conventional processes. In the area of top secret security clearances that implicate national security, that could be a very dangerous course of action.