White House Chief of Staff Orders Security Clearance Overhaul

(Bloomberg) -- White House Chief of Staff John Kelly ordered an overhaul of how security clearances are handled following a storm of controversy after former staff secretary Rob Porter was allowed to remain in his job for months despite allegations of domestic abuse.

"We should -- and in the future, must -- do better," Kelly wrote in the five-page document, released by the White House on Friday, outlining his proposed changes to the clearance process.

Kelly’s proposals include formalizing communications among the White House, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies, all of which play a role in vetting potential West Wing employees. He also recommended limiting access to highly classified material for aides operating on interim clearances as well as new limits on how long employees are allowed to operate under the temporary clearances.

Kelly asked the FBI to inform the White House within 48 hours of discovering significant derogatory information about senior presidential staff.

The chief of staff also proposed discontinuing top-level interim clearances for some staff members whose security clearances have been pending since the beginning of June. That list may include President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a White House senior adviser.

Kushner’s attorney, Abbe Lowell, said Kelly’s new policy “will not affect Mr. Kushner’s ability to continue to do the very important work he has been assigned by the president.”

“My inquiries to those involved again have confirmed that there are a dozen or more people at Mr. Kushner’s level whose process is delayed, that it is not uncommon for this process to take this long in a new administration, that the current backlogs are being addressed, and no concerns were raised about Mr. Kushner’s application,” Lowell said in a statement.

The announcement follows a barrage of criticism. The House Oversight Committee on Wednesday opened an investigation into the administration’s handling of security clearances after the FBI said it had provided the White House a report on Porter that included allegations of domestic violence from his two ex-wives. 

That investigation expanded Thursday, when the committee -- prompted by CNN and NBC reports that more than 130 White House staff members lacked clearances as recently as November -- sent Kelly a letter asking for an accounting of all White House employees who had requested clearances and the status of those requests.

Kelly and other White House officials have provided shifting accounts of how Porter’s clearance was handled, and some of the president’s advisers have recommended he replace the chief of staff.

Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, added to the concerns Wednesday, saying he would recommend limiting access to classified documents for anyone who hadn’t qualified for a permanent clearance.

“You can’t just say an interim allows me to do anything,” Coats said during a congressional hearing.

Coats and other administration officials said a backlog often occurs at the beginning of a presidency, when scores of new officials enter the government. That’s especially true in the Trump White House, where the staff includes many people without previous experience in government many aides with complicated financial holdings or whose careers have included international business dealings.

Still, Kelly acknowledged that process should be "revisited" in light of recent events and the Coats testimony. Kelly said in the memo he would create a working group with top administration officials seeking to "streamline, harmonize, and modernize standards across the Executive Branch."

Kelly also used the memo to defend his own actions. He said clearances were among his "earliest and most immediate concerns" upon entering the White House, saying he added steps including requiring approval from the chief of staff’s office of all new security clearance requests. 

More questions are rising by the day. According to NBC, 34 of the individuals still lacking clearances in November were those who began their government service the first day of the Trump presidency, meaning had not received permanent clearances after more than eight months.

A decision to curtail access for Kushner in particular risks running afoul of the president. On Wednesday, six Democratic senators asked the FBI to turn over a complete list of White House staffers working without a full security clearance.

“We are deeply concerned that high level officials operating under an interim security clearance, like Jared Kushner, read the president’s daily intelligence briefing,” the senators wrote in a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray.

On Thursday, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog organization, filed a complaint with the White House asking for Kushner’s interim clearance to be revoked and warning that his access to classified materials “represents a security threat.”

The Kelly memo on overhauling the clearance process was first reported by the Washington Post.

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