Last week, White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter resigned in the wake of what seem to be very credible accusations that he physically abused his first wife and emotionally abused his second wife. In the last few days, a lot of questions have emerged about what White House officials knew, when they knew it, and how they handled it.
For example, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly reportedly claims he pushed Porter out within less than an hour of concluding the allegations were credible. But that doesn’t square with how Porter, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Donald Trump himself praised Porter. It also doesn’t square with reports that Kelly urged Porter to stay on, or that White House officials knew about these allegations for several months.
Those allegations were a major reason why Porter had yet to obtain a full security clearance. Well, a former National Security Council staffer under Bill Clinton thinks that is especially problematic, since Porter may have had access to information that he shouldn’t have had.
William Antholis, the CEO of the Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, spent four years in the Clinton administration as both director of international economic affairs on the National Security Council and as deputy to Clinton’s staff secretary, Todd Stern. In an op-ed for Politico Magazine, he revealed that based on his own experience in the White House, Porter’s interim security clearance should not have allowed him to serve as staff secretary.
Antholis recalls that the staff secretary is almost always designated as a “National Security/Special Sensitive” position, with access to “our government’s most important secrets.” For that reason, staffers in “Special Sensitive” positions must have a Top Secret/Special Compartmentalized Information clearance–also known as TS/CodeWord. People in these positions have access to secrets that are being funneled from human intelligence “embedded deep in government offices” of this country’s main competitors.
As Antholis puts it, this information is “the high holy data of intelligence,” as it comes from “our deepest and most trusted sources.” It is this information that forms a large chunk of the president’s daily intelligence briefing. These people are literally putting their lives on the line–and are only willing to do so if they know it is only being seen by “a very limited group of people–among the most trustworthy in the world.”
Under normal conditions, Antholis argues, that select group includes the national security adviser, his or her deputy, the national security adviser’s chief of staff, the NSC staff secretary, the White House chief of staff, and the White House staff secretary. Antholis finds it “hard to imagine” that Porter would have been allowed to serve as staff secretary without TS/CodeWord clearance, as it would have required the NSC to make the flow of intelligence information go “around” Porter, rather than “through” him.
As unnerving as that may be, Antholis suspects that Porter’s interim security clearance most likely expired. Normally, interim security clearances are valid for 180 days, with the option for a 180-day extension. That means Porter may have been operating without a clearance as of January 15, 2018.
All things considered, Antholis finds it “staggering” that Kelly–a retired four-star general, a 46-year Marine Corps veteran, and a former Secretary of Homeland Security–did not realize how problematic it was to allow someone who was not “supremely trustworthy” to have access to some of our most important secrets. He believes one of three things happened–either Kelly knowingly allowed Porter to have access to TS/CodeWord information without a clearance, waived the restrictions for him, or created a system to keep extremely sensitive information out of Porter’s sight.
For obvious reasons, the first scenario would amount to, in Antholis’ words, “an extraordinary security breach.” The second scenario would have meant that Kelly would have been well aware that that he was granting a waiver to a man whom the FBI believed had been credibly accused of domestic violence. The third scenario, which Antholis calls “most defendable,” would have effectively given the NSC staff ultimate control over what paper got to Trump’s desk.
Antholis believes that Kelly, as well as Priebus, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, current national security adviser H. R. McMaster, and Trump himself have some explaining to do about Porter’s security clearance status. Even before his piece went to press, Senator Tom Udall convinced 11 of his Senate colleagues to join him in writing Kelly to demand answers.
We’re demanding the White House explain why Rob Porter had access to classified information even after the Chief of Staff was notified he was denied a security clearance because of an alleged history of domestic violence. pic.twitter.com/IKwsahaNL8
— Tom Udall (@SenatorTomUdall) February 9, 2018
12 Democratic senators want John Kelly and Don McGahn to explain why they let Rob Porter have continued access to classified information even after Kelly was notified that Porter was unable to obtain a security clearance. pic.twitter.com/E4N9njvL7w
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) February 10, 2018
But MSNBC correspondent Jonathan Adler has already seen enough. He believes it’s time for Kelly to go, and go now.
Kelly must go. He knew that Porter’s interim security clearance expired Jan 15 and that the FBI had a serious problem with Porter handling top secret material. https://t.co/y5gspFJC1M
— Jonathan Alter (@jonathanalter) February 11, 2018
Congressman Ted Lieu of California thinks that if Kelly let Porter have access to classified information without a clearance, it may have been a lot more than an egregious lapse in judgment. It may have been a crime.
This is a very disturbing article. If in fact Rob Porter's interim security clearance expired on Jan 15 and John Kelly continued to let him handle highly classified information, then Kelly must resign. Also, giving someone classified info who is not cleared to see it is a crime. https://t.co/ZOiYU8Jrtm
— Ted Lieu (@tedlieu) February 11, 2018
Whatever the case, the mere fact that we even have to ask these kinds of questions is simply unacceptable.
Sanders would have us believe that it’s not appropriate to ask a four-star general about such matters. Well, we should be doing a lot more than that. We should be demanding that Kelly resign. After this, we don’t want to hear a damn thing about Hillary Clinton’s emails again.
(featured image: screengrab courtesy MSNBC)