From top secret to secret: What Kushner's clearance downgrade means

President Donald Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was among those White House officials to see their security clear...

Posted: Feb 28, 2018 12:06 PM
Updated: Feb 28, 2018 12:06 PM

President Donald Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was among those White House officials to see their security clearances downgraded, a potentially significant setback for a senior White House adviser.

The change came as sources told CNN that White House chief of staff John Kelly moved to downgrade temporary clearances for top White House staffers as concerns about overreliance on interim security clearances boiled over after staff secretary Rob Porter's resignation following domestic abuse allegations earlier this month. Porter has denied the allegations.

The gulf between secret and top secret clearance is significant, and the move would cut back on what information Kushner can access, meaning the aide who until recently had access to some of the nation's most closely guarded intelligence will, for the time being, have to work with less.

What Kushner can see now

A top staffer and trusted confidant, Kushner was operating with access to information at the highest levels of secrecy, and the change means those materials at the highest level would be out of his reach.

For example, CNN reported that the downgrade in Kushner's clearance status would prevent him from viewing the President's Daily Brief, a collection of some of the nation's most vital intelligence compiled for the President each day.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said last week in response to news of Kelly issuing a directive on clearances that "nothing that has taken place will affect the valuable work Jared is doing."

And Kushner's attorney Abbe Lowell wrote in a statement: "As General Kelly himself said, the new clearance policy will not affect Mr. Kushner's ability to continue to do the very important work he has been assigned by the President."

But CNN national security analyst John Kirby, who worked as spokesman for the Pentagon and State Department in the Obama administration, said he did not see how Kushner, who the White House has advertised as being at the center of the Israel-Palestinan peace process, would be unaffected by the shift.

"This would seem to be crippling," Kirby said.

Kirby said information at the secret level not only contained less detail and nuance than information classified top secret, but also that some events would be referred to only at the top secret level.

"It's not just about the degree of complexity," he said.

Referring to Kushner, Kirby said there would be whole areas of information "that he's not going to get to see."

But Kirby said others might be less affected in their day-to-day jobs than Kushner would be for his reported duties.

"Sometimes there can be really useful intelligence at the confidential level or at the secret level," Kirby said.

Kirby stressed that access to classified information required people to both have the appropriate clearance level and the need to access the information.

For many situations, he said, a secret clearance would be enough.

Millions have clearances

CNN contributor Steve Vladeck, a University of Texas law professor, said it should ring alarm bells that Kushner has been unable to receive a permanent security clearance, and said it was duly notable because of "how many people are successfully able to receive that clearance."

The size of the population with security clearances is large. A 2015 report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence pegged the total at 2,885,570 people for confidential and secret clearances and 1,363,483 for top secret clearances.

Scrutinizing so many people for clearances is a major challenge for the government, and a Government Accountability Office report last year called for widespread reform to the clearance system, given its backlog and other issues outlined. Dan Coats, the current DNI, addressed concerns at a hearing earlier this month, saying the process for security clearances is "broken."

Trump himself has brushed up against government classification, opting to declassify a Republican memo alleging surveillance abuses earlier this year, and at an Oval Office meeting last year, he shared classified information with top Russian officials.

Asked if Trump might exercise his declassification ability when it came to overriding the Kushner situation, Vladeck said Trump has the authority to do so, but that it would be "unprecedented and quite politically controversial."

"Even though this is wholly within the executive branch, there are long standing rules and regulations governing the security clearance process to ensure they are not manipulated by political reasons," Vladeck said. "For the President to override that process would be to throw that understanding into the garbage."

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