COS John Kelly Orders Security Clearance Changes After Rob Porter Scandal

With the Rob Porter scandal not far in the rearview, White House chief of staff John Kelly has issued a memorandum outlining changes to the White House security clearance process, revealing that this is not the first time credible domestic abuse allegations have been an issue in the security clearance process.

“The American people deserve a White House staff that meets the highest standards and that has been carefully vetted,” read the Kelly memo that emphasized the importance of this in regard to staff working closely with the President or handling “sensitive national security information.”

Echoing words from White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah and Vice President Mike Pence, Kelly indicated that they could have done better handling the Porter situation. “We should — and in the future, must — do better,” he wrote.

Kelly called security clearances one of his “earliest and most immediate concerns” after taking up the position as White House chief of staff. He then listed six “reforms” that he had already implemented: clearance review, training in handling of classified information, increased safeguards and suitability determination as part of the hiring process, end of interim security clearances absent Kelly’s explicit approval, expediting and review of outstanding background investigations, and better oversight and improvements in the personnel security office.

The chief of staff held several “after-action meetings” in the past week. “We discussed what actions likely led to the recent situation, how the processes were working up until this week, and the shortcomings within these processes,” wrote Kelly who also met with senior FBI leadership.

The memo acknowledged “shortcomings” in the current “inherited” clearance processes that were exposed through “recent events.”

Rob Porter is not the first individual to be employed and given clearance despite domestic abuse allegations. Kelly revealed, “…we need to do better across the board…in the past, credible and substantiated reports of past domestic abuse — even physical abuse — were not considered automatic disqualification for suitability for employment or a security clearance.”

In light of this, Kelly announced the creation of a working group. That group will include Kelly, counsel to the President Don McGahn, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, deputy chief of staff for operations Joseph Hagin, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Director of the FBI Christopher Wray, and heads of appropriate agencies and their counsels, “to study the clearance process in general and to take action to streamline, harmonize, and modernize standards across the Executive Branch.”

The chief of staff laid out in the memo seven actions to “be carefully considered and implemented as appropriate.” Those were listed as follows:

  • Develop and implement written protocols governing the review of security files, and work with the FBI in developing best practices.
  • Formalize the delivery and notification process between the White House and FBI and update the existing Memorandum of Understanding between the White House and the Department of Justice regarding BIs as necessary. Going forward, all BIs of potential Commissioned Officers should be flagged for the FBI at the outset and then hand-delivered to the White House Counsel personally upon completion. The FBI official who delivers these files should verbally brief the White House Counsel on any information in those files they deem to be significantly derogatory. The White House Counsel will then deliver the BIs to the Personnel Security Office for adjudication. This change ensures (1) accountability by ensuring that critical material will be differentiated from the ordinary volume of communications and delivered quickly and directly to the appropriate person rather than through layers of intermediaries and offices; and (2) that subjectivity will be minimized, I.e., eliminating the need to decide whether certain information is “derogatory” or not.
  • Work with the FBI to reduce the time lag between discovery of significant derogatory information from fieldwork to the disclosure to the White House. Going forward, the goal of receiving a briefing regarding significant derogatory information about senior staff is within 48 hours of discovery. Please consult with the FBI to ascertain whether this goal is achievable.
  • Continue to work closely with the Personnel Security Office to ensure timely recommendations of the highest quality that are free from political interference or considerations. Formalize processes between the White House Counsel’s Office and the PSO regarding suitability and clearance reviews. Going forward, I am directing that those who have a need to know the contents of BIs for personnel or national security reasons — to include me or a designee in the Chief of Staff’s Office — be memorialized.
  • For future approved interim clearances, grant a temporary clearance for a period of 180 days, with an option to extend interim clearance for another 90 days if no significant derogatory information that would call into question whether interim status is appropriate has been discovered in the BI.
  • Effective one week from today, discontinue any Top Secret or SCI-level interim clearances for individuals whose investigations or adjudications have been pending since June 1, 2017 or before. Similar reviews will occur monthly for long-outstanding adjudications.
  • Limit access to certain highly classified information for those individuals working with interim clearance status absent explicit Chief of Staff’s office approval, which would be granted only in the most compelling circumstances.

Kelly has ordered that from now on he is to receive at least monthly status reports on “all pending White House staff background investigations and adjudications.”

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