Last Thursday, House Democrats issued a demand of the FBI to strip President Trump’s senior aid Jared Kushner of his security clearances. The reason? A lapse in declaring his contacts with senior Russian officials. If done intentionally, Kushner could face prosecution by the Department of Justice.
As a former CIA officer, I embrace a closer look at Kushner’s contacts and why he failed to acknowledge them. Indeed, it’s in the country’s best interest to ensure clearances aren’t granted to those who hide their ties to a hostile foreign power.
However, my fellow Democrats might want to be careful about throwing stones in glass houses. Using security clearances as weapons can cut both ways, as Republicans will likely now do against former Obama officials. Officials like National Security Advisor Susan Rice.
Here’s how – and why – it could work.
When former administration officials leave their positions, the clearances they’ve acquired remain active for an extended period of time. That can be incredibly helpful – and lucrative – if they take jobs or corporate roles with companies holding U.S. Government contracts.
In order to keep their clearances active, however, these former officials are sometimes asked to undergo a reinvestigation to ensure that they’re still suitable to hold a clearance. This often includes an updated polygraph, or “lie detector test.” Reinvestigations usually occur because someone’s been randomly selected or Uncle Sam has suspicions that they’ve engaged in naughty behavior. That includes leaking classified information.
Officials can of course decline participation in a reinvestigation or polygraph. But that usually means that their clearances will be stripped.
It’s not hard to imagine Republicans now making the case that Rice undergo an updated reinvestigation. After all, she is one of the prime suspects in a dark chapter in the nation’s history: the unmasking and leaking of classified intercepts as political weaponry.
Recall that in early January, The Washington Post published a series of classified leaks detailing electronic surveillance between Trump officials and Russian diplomats. The result was the firing of Trump’s National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, and the inflaming of tensions between the American people and our new President.
This highly restricted information could have only been seen, “unmasked,” and leaked by a select group of national security officials. That includes – but is not limited to – people like Rice, former CIA Director John Brennan, former DNI Director James Clapper, Rice’s assistant Ben Rhodes, and Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett.
These individuals have now become prime suspects in what was an obvious operation to destroy the credibility of a political opponent by weaponizing intelligence.
There’s good reason why these individuals are on the short list of suspects. Recent media reports have confirmed that at least Rice requested the leaked intelligence be unmasked. Whether she in turn shared the information with the media remains to be seen. And yet Rice almost certainly retains her Top Secret security clearances.
This probably isn’t lost on the FBI’s Special Agents investigating the crime. Indeed, I suspect that they’re looking for creative ways to “unmask the unmaskers.” Having a polygraph – and the threat of stripping clearances – will be a very helpful tool to encourage cooperation. Especially if prodded by Republicans.
Do not underestimate the need of these former officials to keep their clearances. For instance, Clapper previously served on the board of three major government contractors, earning him substantial amounts of money. Removing his clearances means removing the likelihood that he can ever go back to earn more
The same might be true of Susan Rice, Ben Rhodes, and Valerie Jarrett. Each currently enjoys a plum position in various government institutions that could be at risk if their clearances are stripped.
All of this should lead my fellow Democrats in the House to proceed with great caution. We must be careful what we ask for.
We might just get the same in return.
Bryan Dean Wright is a former covert CIA officer and member of the Democratic Party. He contributes on issues of politics, national security, and the economy. Follow him on Twitter @BryanDeanWright.