On the surface you wouldn’t think Jared Kushner and I have much in common, but we both have an interest in access to secret information.
As a private eye in the 1970s and 80s, I started tracking down skipped debtors, then performed due diligence employment investigations and finally graduated to high profile corporate accountability cases. In the 1990s I became a congressional investigator — like those working for the House Committee on Oversight and Reform chaired by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.
Cummings in January launched an investigation into security irregularities in the Trump White House, focused in particular on top-secret clearances for nine current and former high level White House appointees. Kushner is now at the top of the list in light of what Cummings called “grave new reports” that President Donald Trump “may have falsely claimed that he played no role” in the clearance process for his son-in-law and senior White House adviser, a highly leveraged real estate developer whose foreign partners include Saudi Arabia and other countries potentially at odds with U.S. policies and interests.
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I worked on the Senate Judiciary Committee staff for Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, for three years researching judicial nominees and high-ranking Justice Department appointees seeking confirmations. Typically the individuals whose backgrounds I delved into had long, impressive resumes and abundant bona fides. They had been vetted by the FBI, had completed long detailed questionnaires, and had provided reams of financial records, academic papers and speeches for review.
While I had access to power, I had none of my own. I had an edgy past that included dropping out of college and living in Mexico among hippies and drug dealers. I knew for sure I would never be confirmable. I sat on the bench behind my senator boss during Anita Hill’s devastating testimony, but watched Clarence Thomas survive the vote. I saw Zoe Baird’s attorney general bid go down in flames over a nanny. I eventually left government for journalism.
On paper, Kushner is even less fit for high-level access than I am. He omitted potentially disqualifying details from his background questionnaire, suggested setting up a back channel to a hostile foreign government during the transition, and has been discussed as a weak link by foreign powers, according to a Washington Post report sourced to “current and former U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports on the matter.”
But, while he may not be qualified, Kushner is deeply persistent and impeccably connected. He was a key player in his father-in-law’s election and was responsible for bringing (later disgraced) Cambridge Analytica into the digital campaign. When they arrived in Washington, among other chores, Trump tasked Kushner with brokering Middle East peace.
Kushner given access despite concerns
When his original security clearance was delayed, Kushner was assigned an interim designation approved for top-secret access to intelligence reports. The privilege allowed him access to our government’s most sensitive secrets — including his own preview copy of the president’s daily intelligence briefing.
Provisional approvals are typically issued to allow appropriately vetted individuals to start a security level job right away while the bureaucratic wheels turn. In the months following Trump’s inauguration, interim approvals were apparently handed out like Halloween candy. NBC recently reported, based on “two sources familiar with the matter,” that career bureaucrats recommending against top-secret clearances for inexperienced officials and unsuitable candidates were overruled in “at least 30 cases.”
The indefinite interims came under scrutiny in February 2018 after White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter, working on conditional authority, was publicly accused of domestic abuse. The alleged battering had been disclosed to the FBI agents conducting Porter’s background investigation a year before, but Trump’s assistant was nevertheless still privy to the president’s highly classified papers and phone calls.
Trump’s chief of staff, John F. Kelly, a retired 4-star Marine general, took considerable heat from the press on whether he had previously known about Porter’s transgressions. Within weeks Kelly revoked or downgraded dozens of the interim clearances, including Kushner’s. The New York Times, citing “four people briefed on the matter,” reported last week that in May 2018, three months after the interim clearances were revoked, former White House General Counsel Don McGahn cited CIA concerns and continued to refuse to recommend Kushner for a permanent top secret pass. Trump, with ultimate authority in the decision, directed Kelly to give Jared what he wanted.
I didn’t make the cut for far less
Both McGahn and Kelly, perhaps anticipating future requests from Cummings and other authorities, documented their objections in internal memoranda. The president announced McGahn’s departure three months later and Kelly was gone before the year ended. Kushner is still enjoying his West Wing office.
After many years of vetting others, in 2013 I was finally recruited for a clearance level job by a U.S. agency with most of its focus in the Middle East. I was flattered, but I suggested that a history of substance indiscretion would surely eliminate me in a review. My backers and would-be colleagues assured me such past activity would not be a problem (“they are looking for spies, not pot smokers”).
I filled out the questionnaire, but it was not to be. The week my application file was assigned for clearance, Edward Snowden turned up in Hong Kong fresh off his National Security Agency desk to humiliate the same federal agency that would review my file. They had repeatedly cleared the talented cyber analyst-turned-whistleblower and were suddenly facing finger-pointing from Congress. My interrogators were especially concerned by a blog post I’d written a few years earlier confessing my respect for hackers as a component of transparency. My job offer was regretfully withdrawn.
Bonnie Goldstein is a writer, investigator, mother and wife in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @kickedbyanangel