As a national security correspondent for Newsweek, reporter Jeffrey Stein knows he can’t see classified US government documents and doesn’t want to. He is, however, interested in how some of US president Donald Trump’s closest advisors—including Steve Bannon, Rex Tillerson, and Trump’s own family members—got the necessary clearances to begin receiving security briefings, despite allegations and connections that he argues should have raised red flags in the reviewing process.
On Jan. 31, Stein sued multiple agencies of the federal government demanding to know the process used to vet and approve 15 of Trump’s picks. Stein argues, for example, that three of Trump’s children and Tillerson, the new US secretary of state, have had extensive business ties to foreign nations that normally would raise clearance alarms.
He argues that Bannon, the White House senior strategist who will sit on the National Security Council, was criminally charged with domestic violence and has ties to white supremacist organizations, two strikes that would have made him an unlikely candidate for the highest levels of clearance. (Politico reported in August that Bannon, a former banker and Breitbart News executive, was charged with abuse by his now-ex-wife in 1996, and the police report noted red marks on her neck, but she didn’t show up in court and the case was dropped.)
Based on statements made by intelligence officers in the press in May expressing doubt about the Trump team’s suitability for clearance, Stein filed Freedom of Information Act requests asking about the clearance process its members were undergoing. The requests were denied. His lawsuit, reported by Courthouse News, seeks “all records, including emails, about any steps taken to investigate or authorize (or discussions about potentially investigating or authorizing) [15 individuals] for access to classified information.”
“Each of these individuals had been announced or were rumored to be under consideration for positions which would require security clearances, and each individual had publicly-known adverse information in his/her background which would normally preclude the granting of a security clearance if the NSC Adjudicative Guidelines were followed,” the complaint alleges.
White House national security clearance guidelines provide 13 different reasons—each subdivided into smaller categories—why a person may not pass, based on ties and activities at home and abroad. Decisions regarding eligibility to receive classified information “take into account factors that could cause a conflict of interest and place a person in the position of having to choose between his or her commitment to the United States” and “take into account a person’s reliability, trustworthiness and ability to protect classified information.”
The process is meant to examine the “whole person,” the guidelines explain. They state, “When a person’s life history shows evidence of unreliability or untrustworthiness, questions arise whether the person can be relied on and trusted to exercise the responsibility necessary for working in a secure environment where protecting classified information is paramount.”
In evaluating the relevance of an individual’s conduct, clearance adjudicators consider various factors, including the nature, extent, and seriousness of the conduct, circumstances, frequency and recency, age and maturity, voluntariness in participation, evidence of rehabilitation, motivation for the conduct, and “the potential for pressure, coercion, exploitation, or duress; and the likelihood of continuation or recurrence.”
Stein argues in his suit that Trump’s picks have stains that aren’t easy to explain away, based on the guidelines.
The complaint notes, for example, that former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina, who is currently under consideration for director of National Intelligence, was CEO when Hewlett-Packard products were sold to Iran through a Dubai subsidiary in violation of a federal trade ban with the nation, a story first reported by The Boston Globe in 2008.
Similarly, Stein points to Trump’s Defense secretary, James Mattis. According to the complaint, he “sits on the board of directors of Theranos, which is currently under federal criminal investigation.” (In fact, Mattis has resigned the board seat, but he was on the board when the troubled blood-testing startup ran afoul of US regulators.)
Stein argues in his suit that he demonstrated an urgent need for “a person primarily engaged in disseminating information”—that person being himself—to inform the public about discussions regarding classified briefings for Trump.
White House press representatives declined to immediately comment on the lawsuit.