There were a lot of questions surrounding Donald Trump’s chief strategist and chief brownshirt, Steve Bannon. But one of the biggest questions of all was how he would be able to get the Top Secret security clearance he would need to receive classified briefings. After all, Bannon’s past is, shall we say, rather checkered. This is a guy with documented ties to racists and white nationalists. He was also accused of grabbing his then-wife and bullying her into not showing up for court, and was also suspected of being registered to vote at a home where he didn’t live and taking payments from Trump donors.
Bannon got cleared anyway. Now, Newsweek national security correspondent Jeff Stein wants to know how that happened. He’s suing eight federal agencies for details on how Bannon and 14 other transition team members and current or prospective administration officials were vetted for the necessary clearances.
Stein has been trying to find out about the vetting process for Trump’s advisers since May, when The Washington Post reported that intelligence officials were worried that Trump and his team were fit for security clearances. He filed Freedom of Information requests soon afterward, and was turned down. He tried again in July, when Trump officially won the nomination–and with it, the right to classified briefings. Those requests were also turned down.
On January 31, Stein sued the Central Intelligence Agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Office of Personnel Management, and the departments of State, Justice, Defense, Commerce, and Education to force them to reveal more about the vetting process. Read the complaint here. Stein has no interest in learning the details of these classified briefings. However, he rightly argues that he and the public have a right to know the process by which Trump advisers were cleared for classified briefings.
Under the White House’s guidelines for security clearances, a person can be refused access to classified information if his or her background has factors that show a person lacks the responsibility to work in “a secure environment where protecting classified information is paramount.” There are 13 categories reasons why a person might not qualify, though the president nominally has the right to overrule an adverse recommendation from the FBI and ODNI.
Stein’s suit contends that Bannon has “publicly known adverse information” on his record that would normally disqualify him from a Top Secret clearance–namely, the domestic violence complaint and his ties to white supremacists. After the election, a number of experts on the security clearance process argued that anyone else with a record similar to Bannon’s would have a very steep climb to pass a background check. Some of them believed Trump would be taking a significant risk if the FBI and ODNI didn’t clear Bannon, and he opted to overrule them anyway.
It’s no coincidence that this suit was filed after it emerged that Bannon was exercising many of the powers of the presidency himself. As we now know, he wrote many of the executive orders churned out by Trump. One of them may have been the order putting Bannon on the National Security Council; Trump apparently didn’t read that order before he signed it.
However, Bannon isn’t the only target here. Stein wants information on a number of current and prospective administration figures, as well as a number of transition team members. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn figures very prominently in the complaint due to his ties with the Kremlin and Turkey, as well as his reputation for playing fast and loose with security rules. Carly Fiorina, who is in contention to become Director of National Intelligence, was still CEO of Hewlett-Packard when that company did an end run around a federal trade ban with Iran in 2008.
Three of Trump’s children–Ivanka, Donald, Jr., and Eric–are under the microscope for their close ties to foreign governments and their father’s wide-ranging business interests. His son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, faces scrutiny because his now-former paper, the New York Observer, worked with one of the hacking collectives fingered in the Russian attempts to influence the election. Wilbur Ross, Trump’s nominee for Commerce Secretary, is under fire for his ownership of the Sago Mine, which collapsed in 2005 after years of uncorrected problems.
This is critical on two counts. For one thing, Trump and the GOP spent over a year kneecapping Hillary Clinton for her private email server. It is only fair that we know if there were red flags in the backgrounds of Trump’s advisers.
More importantly, if Trump ordered the clearances granted despite recommendations against doing so, it would say a lot about his attitude toward national security. Indeed, in some cases–certainly Bannon, and possibly Flynn and Fiorina–if Trump were to grant a clearance despite being told in no uncertain terms that they could not be trusted with one, a good argument could be made that it would be time for a 25th Amendment solution, and possibly a demand for his resignation or impeachment.
(featured image courtesy DonkeyHotey, available under a Creative Commons BY-SA license)