Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of “United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists.”
When the news broke Tuesday that Kushner’s interim security clearance had been downgraded from “top secret” to “secret,” his lawyer Abbe Lowell claimed that it would “…not affect Mr. Kushner’s ability to continue to do the very important work he has been assigned by the President.”
This is baloney, served with generous helpings of bunkum and balderdash.
To operate effectively with adversaries such as the Chinese and even nominal allies such as the Saudis, Kushner requires, at a minimum, a top secret clearance, often referred to as a TS clearance, according to nine former senior national security officials and former military officers, all of whom had access to highly classified intelligence and whom I consulted for this story.
Let’s start with how the White House National Security Council (NSC) operates, where US policy on national security and foreign policy is formulated. A former government official who worked at the NSC for six years explains, “The NSC operates at the TS level as a baseline.”
A former senior NSC official confirms that meetings at the NSC “are by default TS.”
Then let’s add the fact that those with top secret clearances – pretty much anybody doing any work of any significance in national security – will not discuss what he or she knows with those holding clearances only at the secret level.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Jason Amerine, who served in US Special Forces and worked at the Pentagon on highly classified programs, told me that those “with only a secret clearance are regarded much the same as someone without a clearance at all. Those who routinely access top secret information in policy discussions have the discipline to carry out the best practice of simply not discussing anything with those who only have a secret-level clearance.” (Disclosure: I know Amerine from the CNN film, “Legion of Brothers,” which I produced and in which he appeared.)
For any serious discussion of US national security, a secret clearance isn’t much more than a useless piece of paper. A former senior Department of Defense official says that at the Pentagon, “when we had people being on-boarded and they only had secret clearances, they had to sit in separate spaces until they had the requisite clearances, and it severely limited their ability to function.”
At the White House, even jobs that at first blush wouldn’t appear to need a top secret clearance require one, according to Heather Hurlburt, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton: “I had to have a top secret clearance to be a presidential speechwriter… Why? To read the information behind the rationales for events and messages and participate intelligently in meetings where they were developed. Without access to that analysis I’d have been as useful as a typing monkey.” (Hurlburt is a colleague of mine at the non-partisan think tank, New America.)
President Trump could, of course, give his son-in-law access to the top secret material he is now being denied – given that the President has the ability to declassify whatever he wants to whomever he wants – but, for the moment, Trump has said he would let his chief of staff, Gen. John Kelly, make the call about Kushner’s clearance. And last week, Kelly made the call to downgrade it.
Without a top secret clearance, Kushner won’t be able to attend most NSC meetings, colleagues will be leery about discussing much of substance with him, and the former avid consumer of intelligence will only have access to the kind of relatively low-level intelligence that some three and half million other Americans with secret clearances also have.
With only a secret clearance, Kushner might as well leave the White House tomorrow – at least when it comes to national security matters – because he will be receiving scant relevant intelligence for his work, he won’t be able to attend key meetings, nor will he receive the crown jewel of the intelligence community, the President’s Daily Briefs.
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Without a top secret clearance, Kushner will be no more well informed than a careful newspaper reader since materials at the secret level are often smart diplomatic analyses, not real intelligence of the kind that top national security officials need for decision-making.
This may be OK for, say, dealing with a domestic issue such as the opioid crisis, one of the many jobs in Kushner’s immense portfolio, but it’s not going to cut it for the national security and foreign policy portfolios that his father-in-law has handed him, including dealing with the Middle East and China.
That said, Kushner still has unique access to the President that no other person in his position would normally have, and that remains true whatever the level of his clearance.
As long as that access is there, Kushner will still be a player when he deals with foreign leaders. One of the leaders Kushner is close to is the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who is scheduled to visit Washington next month.
It will be interesting to see if Kushner is front and center during Crown Prince Mohammed’s visit, given the loss of his top secret clearance.