Week of reckoning on White House aides' access to secrets

Jared Kushner takes a phone call before a Security Council meeting on the situation in Middle East, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018 at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Jared Kushner, center, listens as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a Security Council meeting on the situation in Palestine, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018 at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

WASHINGTON — It's a week of reckoning for White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and dozens of other officials who have been working without permanent security clearances for the better part of a year.

Those who have been operating with interim access to top secret information since before June are set to see that access halted Friday under a new policy enacted last week by chief of staff John Kelly. Some officials are expected to leave their posts as a result, while others will continue working with reduced — or no — access to classified information.

The White House maintains that Kushner's work will be unaffected by the change, but won't explain why.

"Nothing that has taken place will affect the valuable work that Jared is doing," press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday. "He continues and will continue to be a valued member of the team. He'll continue to do the important work that he's been focused on for the last year."

Kelly, in a statement, said the White House looks forward to Kushner maintaining his role working on the Middle East peace process and U.S.-Mexico relations.

"As I told Jared days ago, I have full confidence in his ability to continue performing his duties in his foreign policy portfolio including overseeing our Israeli-Palestinian peace effort and serving as an integral part of our relationship with Mexico," Kelly said. "Everyone in the White House is grateful for these valuable contributions to furthering the president's agenda. There is no truth to any suggestion otherwise."

It was not immediately clear how Kushner, the president's son-in-law, would be protected from Kelly's crackdown on interim White House clearances. Sanders did not rule out President Donald Trump using his executive authority to grant Kushner a permanent security clearance, which would circumvent the traditional process run by the White House office of personnel security.

"I haven't spoken with the president about whether or not that would be necessary," Sanders said.

Kushner is reportedly said to review the highly secret presidential daily brief each morning and has been in the room for some of Trump's most consequential domestic and foreign policy decisions.

At one time his portfolio expanded to include the U.S. relationships with China and Japan and a host of domestic priorities, including infrastructure, trade and economic development. But his free-wheeling reach in the foreign policy space — which was viewed as undermining Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — had already been curtailed somewhat under Kelly.

Kushner has held an interim security clearance for more than a year, his attorney, Abbe Lowell, told The Associated Press last week. Officials said that absent direct presidential intervention, he is not expected to receive a permanent clearance before the Friday deadline.

"The new policy announced by General Kelly will not affect Mr. Kushner's ability to continue to do the very important work he has been assigned by the president," Lowell said last week.

Kelly's change only applies to clearances for access to the apex of the classification pyramid — top secret and sensitive compartmented information — not to lower-level clearances required to handle secret or confidential information. Much, but not all, of Kushner's work on the two issues singled out by Kelly are handled at those lower levels, an official said.

Kushner has been forced to repeatedly correct omissions in his "SF-86," the government-wide form used to apply for clearances, as well as his financial disclosure forms, which experts said could delay or even nix his chances of earning a clearance through the normal process. Kushner has also come under scrutiny in special counsel Robert Mueller's ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Kelly announced the change in a memo to White House counsel Don McGahn, after coming under criticism for his handling of domestic abuse allegations against former White House staff secretary Rob Porter. Kelly had known about the broad allegations against Porter for months, and initially moved to defend him.

The policy change is also set to hit at least two dozen other White House officials, according to a senior administration official briefed on the change but not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. The official said many staffers holding interim top secret or SCI clearances would lose them — but most don't need them for their day-to-day jobs. The White House has repeatedly refused to comment on the clearances of senior staffers.

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