At 33, Elise Stefanik may be the youngest member of Congress, but she knows what she’s talking about when it comes to security clearances.
As a young staffer in the West Wing of the White House — she worked for the chief of staff under President George W. Bush — she had to be vetted and obtain a security clearance. In her experience, she said, the presidential administration had no such thing as an “interim clearance.” You either had a security clearance or you didn’t have one.
The “interim clearance” is an invention of the Trump administration, which uses it to cover people who should not have security clearances. Dozens of people in the Trump White House have “interim clearances,” including some in high positions, such as Jared Kushner. Rob Porter, whose two ex-wives have said he abused them, was also operating on an “interim clearance.”
Porter was Trump’s staff secretary, which meant he handled the flow of paperwork to the president and had access to highly sensitive and classified material.
All this is a perversion of the system long in place and followed by administrations of both parties for safeguarding this country’s secrets. The Trump administration has flouted the long-standing insistence of the leaders of our security services that those people who handle the country’s secrets have no secrets of their own that could compromise their integrity.
The idea that a highly placed official in the U.S. government could be susceptible to blackmail by a foreign power seems like Cold War-era paranoia until you remind yourself that our Cold War foe, Russia, interfered with our last presidential election and continues efforts to manipulate our politics and sow dissension.
It is fundamental good government to make sure that people like Rob Porter are not allowed anywhere near classified information. People whose moral bearings are as questionable as Porter’s should not be given high government posts, regardless of security considerations. But even if you separate the personal and professional to the extent that you approve the hiring of someone with such low moral character, the risk to national security should convince you that Porter had no place in the White House.
Stefanik sits on the House Intelligence Committee, and to her credit, she appreciates the importance of this issue and is willing to criticize the Trump administration’s handling of it.
“I think you should only have access to classified information if you have clearance. Period. End of story,” she said.
Unfortunately for the country, as bad as the handling of Porter’s situation has been, he is only one example among many in the Trump administration of people who should not have access to classified information but do. The most prominent example is Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who has been given tremendous access and responsibility — including a charge to handle peace talks in the Middle East — despite lacking a security clearance. Kushner has amended his security paperwork multiple times, exposing an approach to security that is slipshod or misleading or both.
We’re worried by the Trump administration’s cavalier treatment of classified material. Any president’s top priority must be to keep the country safe.
We are somewhat reassured by Stefanik’s more serious approach. Since the president sets the rules for security in his own administration — he’s allowed to employ security risks if he wants to — an individual congresswoman can’t force the firing of someone like Porter or Kushner. But we’d like to see Stefanik pressuring the administration to address this problem by speaking up more on the Intelligence Committee and enlisting other members of Congress to do the same.