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Expert On Security Clearance Process Reacts To Jared Kushner's Situation


To reports now that President Trump ordered that a top-secret security clearance be granted to his adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, and that Trump did so despite objections from intelligence officials, the White House's top lawyer and his own chief of staff. For some perspective on how unusual a turn of events this would represent, let's bring in David Kris. He used to run the National Security Division at the Justice Department and is a veteran of the security clearance process. David Kris, welcome.

DAVID KRIS: Thank you.

KELLY: Your top-line reaction to this story, which was first reported by The New York Times, that the president overruled senior administration officials to get Kushner's clearance?

KRIS: I think it's a very serious matter, potentially. The president has the legal authority as the head of the executive branch to make this decision.

KELLY: Which is an important point. Legally, he is allowed to do this.

KRIS: That's certainly the, I think, predominant view. But there is a category of behavior that some people characterize as lawful but awful. And I think this may very well fall into that category. You do not grant these kinds of high-level security clearances lightly. And if the career people who do this for a living expressed serious reservations then I would be very strongly inclined to believe that they had good reason for those reservations and that the president's overruling of them may have been a very bad mistake.

KELLY: How unusual is Jared Kushner's situation? I mean, he had to amend his application for a clearance multiple times. He lost his top-secret clearance at one point last year then he got it back. How outside of the norm is that?

KRIS: That's pretty unusual. I mean, I do have some sympathy for people who have to fill out these very detailed forms, the SF-86, which requires you, for example, to list every place you've lived and every job you've had. And oftentimes, there are financial disclosure forms that are difficult for somebody like Mr. Kushner in particular, who I think has a good deal of financial wherewithal. But the sheer number of mistakes, if that's what they were, that he's made, the number of corrections that he's had to make, that is very unusual. The loss of a clearance and then the restoration of a clearance, if that's what happened, that's unusual.

This is by no means a normal occurrence. And for an ordinary person, I think the perspective on it from most outsiders would be that there is no way someone who was not privileged by the relationship that he has with the president would have gotten through. I mean, to be fair, we don't - I don't know, at least, all of the actual facts, but it sure looks like someone is leaning really hard on the wheel here.

KELLY: How is the process supposed to work?

KRIS: Well, the career folks in the agencies will do a background investigation. They will interview the person in question. They will require him or her to produce documents. You fill out these very elaborate forms that I mentioned. And then they will go out into the field, and they will interview your friends and acquaintances and colleagues and ask them for additional sources of persons they can interview. It's quite a thorough going-over. And at the end of that, they make a report and an assessment whether the person is or should be eligible for access to very classified information.

And, of course, the president, as we've discussed, can disregard the facts or the recommendation or both, and he can make the decision. And apparently, that is at least what the news media says happened here. The process would normally work that the facts are found, the recommendation is made and, in very much the majority of cases - almost all cases - the recommendation is followed. Here, it wasn't, apparently.

KELLY: So how big a deal do you think this is? I mean, what is the significance?

KRIS: I do think it's a very big deal. We have this whole elaborate process of doing background investigations and then granting security clearances or not based on the results of those investigations because we want to protect classified information from disclosure. So the first concern here is that if Kushner really is a risk, why are we taking that risk as a nation with very sensitive information? I think a second point is that it's demoralizing to see this departure from normal processes for a family member of the president for all of the people in the government who do follow the rules. And I expect a lot more review of this by Congress or by others to get to the bottom of what really happened here 'cause it's important.

KELLY: David Kris. He served in senior national security posts at the Justice Department in both the Bush and Obama administrations, and he is founder of the Culper Partners consultancy. David Kris, thank you.

KRIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.