White House Loses Personnel Security Oversight to the Pentagon
Featured Story, The Latest News

White House Loses Personnel Security Oversight to the Pentagon

Congress Forced the Move After Putin’s Friend in the Oval Office Interfered in Clearance Process for Jared and Ivanka

David Cay Johnston

The Trump administration, after making a mess of security clearances for federal workers and contractors, is about to hand off to the Pentagon the biggest change in the clearance system in a half-century.

Concern about the security clearance system is not new, but the Government Accountability Office documents serious deterioration since Trump took office. The GAO is the investigative arm of Congress.

The Trump administration did such a poor job with security clearances that in 2018 the GAO put the entire security clearance system on its High-Risk List.

That’s not surprising given Donald Trump’s continual attacks on our national intelligence agencies as he praises the integrity of Vladimir Putin.

The Trump administration did such a poor job with security clearances that in 2018 the GAO put the entire security clearance system on its High-Risk List.

In May 2017 in the Oval Office, Trump gave sensitive sources and methods secrets to the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador. Only a Russian government photographer was allowed to join the meeting, which the American people learned about from Russian state media. More on this here, here and here.

Asserting his view that the president is an all-powerful dictator who may do as he chooses, Trump insists he enjoys an “absolute right” to give away any American secrets to hostile foreign powers. In a series of tweets on May 16, 2017, outlining this view, he also attacked the American intelligence community.

Clearances for Family Members

Trump, we should never forget, ignored the strong advice of seasoned national security officials who objected to granting clearances to his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his daughter Ivanka. Numerous revisions to their SF-86 security clearance forms were made when a single change is often enough to prompt rejection. Trump personally ordered that the family members get clearances, although he also insisted he had never “interfered” in the process.

Under the new law, security background checks will move to the Defense Department from the National Background Investigations Bureau, which is part of the Office of Personnel Management, our government’s HR department. Presumably, Trump, who has minimal management skills, will be less likely to interfere with the Pentagon than with the civilian Office of Personnel Management.

The law was sponsored by Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), vice-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The changes are in Section 901 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018. It requires the secretary of defense to take charge of security clearance investigations by Oct. 1, 2020, the first day of the 2021 budget year. All personnel background and security investigations will be handled by the Defense Department’s Consolidated Adjudication Facility.

The conference committee report on the bill said that the “current situation of massive clearance delays has serious adverse effects on national security and must be addressed in order to avoid any further damage” to military readiness.

The Defense Department had been on the GAO High-Risk List but was taken off that list in 2011, during the Obama administration.

Huge Backlog

In its 2019 report, GAO said that the security clearance system “faces significant challenges related to (1) the timely processing of clearances, (2) measuring investigation quality, and (3) ensuring IT security, among other things.

“The executive branch has been unable to process personnel security clearances within established timeliness objectives, contributing to a backlog that the NBIB reported to be approximately 565,000 cases as of February 2019.”

That backlog hit a high of 725,000 in April 2018, 15 months into the Trump administration.

The GAO warned about likely problems with the Defense Department taking over the security clearance process. Among the problems, antiquated computer systems “may delay planned milestones for the new system.” Known weaknesses in the Office of Personnel Management computer systems were not properly monitored, the GAO found. But since Trump has been pumping more money into the Pentagon, hopefully some will go for modern computers and software to track security clearances and keep them updated.

To improve the security clearance system the GAO said there is a need to develop a long-term plan, to coordinate between agencies and to obtain more funding. All three recommendations run against the helter-skelter nature of the Trump administration, whose leader operates from emotionally charged seat-of-the-pants ignorance, denigrates all our national security agencies while expressing trust in the Kremlin and spends on hardware, not systematic improvements, and likes spending on war material. Trump barely knows how to use a computer. The Pentagon is awash in computers with sophisticated software.

The system for granting and renewing security clearances was troubled long before Trump took office. But any thought that the Trump administration has the best people to fix this problem, or the right attitude, is at war with the known facts. Let’s hope the Pentagon does better, and operates free from the ineptitude of this White House.

July 26, 2019