White House chief of staff John Kelly, under fire over the White House’s handling of domestic abuse allegations against a senior aide, ordered an overhaul of the security clearance process for current and incoming top administration officials.
In a five-page memo to the White House counsel, national security adviser and deputy chief of staff for operations, Kelly called for all background check investigations into potential top White House officials to be delivered directly to the White House Counsel’s office by the FBI and for the FBI to share “significant derogatory information” uncovered in the course of investigations into senior staff with the White House within 48 hours, according to a copy of the memo released by the White House.
Kelly also directed his staff to discontinue top level security clearances for any staffer whose background investigation or adjudication process has been pending since before last June. He also requested “status reports” on pending background investigations “at least once a month.”
Kelly’s memo comes just over a week after White House staff secretary Rob Porter resigned after allegations of domestic abuse against him became public. Porter’s ex-wives had leveled the accusations against Porter in interviews with FBI officials in early 2017, and FBI Director Chris Wray said the FBI provided the White House with updates on the investigation in March, July and November before closing the investigation in January.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said earlier this week that the FBI provided the updates to the White House Personnel Security Office, but declined to say whether West Wing officials knew of the allegations of domestic abuse. Sources have told CNN that both Kelly and White House counsel Don McGahn were aware of the allegations for months before they became public.
The memo represented the White House’s latest effort to move past the Porter scandal, following a week during which White House spokespeople repeatedly contradicted themselves and pointed fingers at the Personnel Security Office, which is staffed by career officials. Facing a credibility crisis of his own, Kelly sought to rewrite his actions, telling staff he had acted more swiftly than widely believed to obtain Porter’s resignation.
The White House has yet to say when Kelly and McGahn learned of the allegations against Porter and which officials were briefed on issues with Porter’s security clearance application.
Kelly acknowledged in the memo – which was also copied to Wray, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Director of Intelligence Dan Coats – that the administration “must do better.”
“The American people deserve a White House staff that meets the highest standards and that has been carefully vetted – especially those who work closely with the President or handle sensitive national security information,” Kelly wrote. “We should – and in the future, must – do better.”
But Kelly’s memo also sought to pin much of the blame on processes that predated his tenure as chief of staff and President Donald Trump’s inauguration, noting that the Porter saga “focused immense attention on a clearance process that has been in place for multiple administrations.”
Kelly’s memo, which was released by the White House, also amounted to the chief of staff’s most public pushback yet of criticism he has faced over revelations that Porter remained on staff for months in spite of the FBI flagging the allegations of domestic abuse to the White House.
Kelly touted changes he has already made to the security clearance process, writing that “security clearances were one of my earliest and most immediate concerns” when he became chief of staff last summer.
Among the actions, Kelly says he reviewed security clearances of White House staff, reduced the overall number of clearances and “adjusted the level” of staffer’s clearances to better fit with his vision of staffers’ responsibilities. He also ended in September the practice of granting new interim security clearances “absent extraordinary circumstances” and his signoff, and directed a review of pending security clearance applications.
In another nod to protocols that predated his tenure, Kelly noted that allegations of domestic abuse did not automatically result in a denied security clearance application.
“In the past, credible and substantiated reports of past domestic abuse – even physical abuse – were not considered automatic disqualifiers for suitability for employment or a security clearance. That needs to be revisited,” Kelly wrote.
Beyond addressing processes that he suggested were at fault for allowing Porter to remain as a senior aide to the President, Kelly said he also plans to work with the attorney general, FBI director, director of national intelligence, defense secretary and CIA director to “streamline, harmonize and modernize standards across the executive branch” – citing a larger problem.