The allegations against Rob Porter, the recently departed White House staff secretary, are morally disturbing. Multiple ex-wives have accused him of abusive behavior, and while he disputes those accusations, the FBI found them credible enough to deny him a security clearance – and there are pictures of one of his exes with a black eye that she claims was delivered by him.
For White House and the National Security Council staff veterans, the revelation that Porter did not have a full security clearance raises a number of real questions that must be answered. Those questions speak directly to the safety of America’s most sensitive intelligence officers and most dangerous operations.
Having worked at the White House — including both at the National Security Council and alongside the staff secretary – Porter-gate has all the markings either of a very high security breach or a highly unusual staff structure. It also raises real questions about how Trump White House staff under both Reince Priebus and John Kelly managed sensitive information, and what both of them knew about the allegations against Porter and when they knew it.
As staff secretary, Porter held one of the most important, and under-appreciated, positions at the White House. The staff secretary normally is responsible for managing all information that flows to the president – usually including the secrets known only to a small handful of people – principally, President Trump and Chiefs of Staff Priebus and Kelly, and National Security Advisers Michael Flynn and Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster.
News reports indicate that Porter was granted an “interim security clearance.” That certification is, indeed, quite common in the early days of an administration. Likewise, almost any new government employee who comes in contact with classified information – Secret, Top-Secret, and Top-Secret/Code Word intelligence – goes through this “interim” phase.
If an employee receives an interim security clearance, he or she is allowed by law to serve in positions designated “National Security/ Non-Critical Sensitive” or “National Security/Critical Sensitive.” They cannot, however, be given a “Special Sensitive” job, which requires a different level of clearance: Top Secret/Special Compartmentalized Information – also known as TS/SCI or TS/CodeWord.
Only employees with TS/SCI or CodeWord clearance can see our government’s most important secrets. Typically, the staff secretary is one of those very few people. One of the most important.
What does that mean?
It means that the most highly classified secrets in the U.S. government are limited to a very finite group of people. U.S. human intelligence sources may be embedded deep in the government offices in Beijing, or Tehran, or Moscow or Pyongyang – capitals that the Trump administration has identified as America’s prime competitors. If we have sources in those places, they are likely transmitting secrets back through secure channels to Washington. They would typically be given code words — say, Panda, Minaret, Ballerina and Kimchi.
Within each of those channels, only a handful of people has access to top secret information. Those pieces of information are the high holy data of intelligence. Like the Host in a Catholic mass, they are the flesh and word of our all-knowing government — literally, the lives and intelligence of our deepest and most sensitive sources. Each channel is “compartmentalized.” That is, there are very few people who have access to both the Panda channel and the Ballerina channel.
Only a very, very select group of people has access to all of those channels, and the information that flows through them. That intelligence gets pulled into a daily intelligence summary that goes to the Oval Office – the President’s Daily Briefing – and to a select small group of people. Agents and sources in the field are willing to put their lives at risk only if they believe that the information will be limited to a very limited group of people – among the most trustworthy in the world.
Who in the White House has access to this information?
In the White House, other than the president, it likely to only be the national security adviser, his or her deputy, their chief of staff and the NSC’s staff secretary. It would also include the White House chief of staff, perhaps one deputy, and the staff secretary — the job Porter held. Press reports also indicate that Jared Kushner had access to that information.
The staff secretary is the person who manages the paper flow to the Oval Office. It is hard to imagine that person does not have TS/SCI level clearance, as that would require the NSC staff to navigate around the staff secretary, rather than thru him/her.
In Porter’s case, the interim security clearances had been temporary: 180 days with the option for extension (another 180 days). Porter appears to have started on January 20, 2017 – Inauguration Day. Assuming he was given that “interim” clearance on Day 1, it would have expired on January 15, 2018.
The fact that Chief of Staff Kelly — a former military officer and former secretary of homeland security — would not have seen this as a problem is staggering. He would know better than anyone that managing highly restricted information is essential to American national security.
Every person who has access to the most sensitive pieces of intelligence must be supremely trustworthy — capable of being kept in the highest cones of silence. If they leak information, they potentially jeopardize lives of intelligence agents or sources in the field.
So, in essence, Kelly either (a) allowed a key aide in the chain of information access to TS/SCI information without a clearance, (b) waived the process entirely or (c) created a system that worked around him.
If Kelly knowingly allowed Porter access to TS/SCI information without formally approving it, that’s an extraordinary security breach.
If Kelly waived off the TS/SCI restrictions, he likely would have done that formally — including either with the White House counsel, the FBI, or the president himself. That would require understanding fully the reason Porter was still “interim” – a restraining order preventing him from contacting a former wife who alleged that he physically abused her.
Most defendable is that Kelly allowed a system for moving information — from August 2017 through February 2018 — that simply worked around the staff secretary. Porter needed to have been kept out of the loop for any truly sensitive material going into the Oval Office. That would have required a highly disciplined NSC staff which, in essence, would have had to have final control over all Oval Office paper flow.
So, in the coming days, it will be critical to know whether Priebus and Kelly, Flynn and McMaster, and/or the president himself knew about Porter’s security clearance status. Based on that knowledge, did they allow him access to Top Secret/CodeWord intelligence, including the President’s Daily Briefing? If they did know, and they allowed it, what made them feel so secure about Porter?
If they did not know, then who exactly at the White House is protecting our national secrets?