By Karoun Demirjian / The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — The officials who run the federal government’s background check system told senators Wednesday that they would find it difficult to approve a permanent security clearance for someone who failed to disclose “significant financial entanglements with a foreign adversary,” as the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is alleged to have done.
“I would have a hard time overcoming that,” Charles Phalen, the director of the National Background Investigations Bureau, told members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Officials in at least four countries have discussed how they might be able to manipulate Kushner by leveraging his foreign business ties — many of which he failed to initially disclose on his security clearance forms. Kushner’s foreign contacts are one reason he never secured a permanent security clearance, despite his position of influence in the White House — and potentially contributed to the decision last month to downgrade his interim clearance from top secret to secret.
Phalen and other federal background check officials declined to weigh in specifically on Kushner’s clearance, noting that there are no specific tripwires or dealbreakers outlined in the security clearance review process. They also demurred to weigh in on the greater problem of security reviews at the White House, where dozens of officials — including Kushner and senior aide Rob Porter, who resigned last month under domestic abuse allegations — have been operating with interim clearance, some since the beginning of Trump’s presidency. But they warned that, in general, the type of circumstances surrounding Kushner and the White House could jeopardize national security.
Foreign financial entanglements “often causes people to make bad decisions,” Phalen said, particularly if that individual is in debt. In such cases, a person might figure “I’ve got something valuable here, let me sell it to somebody,” Phalen explained, or “make a decision that my personal life is more important than my country.”
Running the government on long-term interim clearances also poses risks more generally, Daniel Payne of the Defense Security Services said, noting the dangers of allowing people whose clearance would eventually be denied to work with secret information on an “interim” basis for months on end.
“The length of time that someone stays in an interim capacity has to be limited as much as possible,” Payne said.
The spotlight on the White House’s security clearance woes has put new urgency behind a campaign to institute reforms to the background check process and clear the processing backlog that has top secret applicants waiting for 200 to 400 days.
“We feel that it can go much lower,” Garry Reid, the director of defense intelligence, told the Senate panel.
But some senators noted that government officials setting the standards for clearance and contractors who have to obtain it do not appear to have the same priorities when it comes to clearing that backlog.
Both government officials and contracting company directors who appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee spoke of the importance of adopting continuous evaluations and incorporating automated background check processes into the security clearance approval process, instead of relying on periodic, pen-and-paper interviews that can be time-consuming and less responsive to changing circumstances and risks. But the contracting industry’s top priority, reciprocity — a unified background check process in which a person, once approved for clearance, does not have to reapply every time they change a job within government — barely received a mention from government officials, who are focused on separating out Defense Department clearances to expedite those.
“It seems like we’re going in the opposite direction,” top panel Democrat Mark Warner, D-Va., noted.
Though there is urgency in Congress to amend and improve the security clearance process, the road ahead is unclear. Some Democratic senators suggested Wednesday that the background check backlog could be partially cleared by simply adopting a new mind-set about classification, and about which jobs actually need secret clearance in an era when many things are available on the Internet. Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., also told federal officials that while he is not adverse to seeking an increase in funding that would allow the processing agencies to hire additional investigators, “I am averse to doing either of those things before we change the [background check] system.”
Government officials told Congress there are no legislative barriers to improving the security clearance process, but that they would have to “look at a different methodology of doing this,” Payne said.
“We’re never going to be able to reduce the risk to zero unless we stop hiring,” he added. “What we have to determine is how much risk we find acceptable.”