national security

Ex-White House Insider: Rob Porter Was a 'Clear Vulnerability'

A former counterintelligence official explains why you should care about the latest massive White House scandal.

by Allie Conti
Feb 14 2018, 8:25pm

Left: Donald Trump, photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Right: Rob Porter, photo by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Just a month ago, Rob Porter was considered a golden boy. A Harvard graduate and former Mormon missionary turned Rhodes scholar, the 40-year-old scored a gig as staff secretary to Donald Trump. He got to ride on Air Force One and help write the president's first state of the union address; he held a key position in the White House even if the public didn't know his name. But on February 7, the ascendant politico resigned in disgrace after his two ex-wives accused him of abuse—one of them shared photos of herself with a black eye, and the other had filed a restraining order against him.

In the week since, Porter's departure has become a scandal. Every White House employee who works with classified information, Porter included, has to undergo a background check that can involve vetting by the FBI, depending on the level of the clearance. That process would naturally turn up these allegations, so the question—which different officials have given different answers to at different times—is how long the administration knew about them. According to the Washington Post, White House Counsel Donald McGahn knew a full year ago that Porter's former wives might accuse him of domestic violence, and Chief of Staff John Kelly learned about the allegations in the fall. And though earlier this week the White House claimed that the FBI was still investigating Porter when the story broke, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that that the feds had closed the investigation and that the White House had been told about the allegations. (The fact that Trump said that he wished Porter well, and that "he did a very good job when he was at the White House," all the while expressing no sympathy for either of his ex-wives, was a scandal of its own.)

At the bottom of all this is the question of whether Porter even had a security clearance—if he didn't have one, how could he have done his job? This follows reports that White House adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner still doesn't have a permanent security clearance after leaving meetings with foreigners, including the Russian ambassador, off of his forms.

To find out how the process of getting cleared works, I talked to Nate Snyder, a former senior advisor in the Department of Homeland Security under Barack Obama. Besides going through the same security checks that Porter would have gone through, he also worked as a liaison between the the DHS and the White House and was in charge of helping to vet candidate and telling certain people they weren't suitable for sensitive government positions.

VICE: So someone wants a job in the White House. What kind of investigation is triggered and who conducts it?
Nate Snyder: At the beginning, people would get interviewed and there would be a cursory vetting done by the Presidential Personnel Office (PPO) and also our office. That was something like simple googling, checking someone's social media, and just seeing if they weren't putting really crazy stuff out there. And then there'd be a handshake agreement if we were both good with somebody, and we would notify that person and say, "Hey, we'd like to make you a candidate to be an appointee at the Department of Homeland Security." We were very, very careful using that language, because we couldn't say, "You're hired," since they would need to go through a background investigation to make that final.

What that would immediately trigger is the standardized form SF-86. And any political appointee that's been in a national security agency or even at the White House probably gets horrible flashbacks on this form. What it does is ask to go back in history for seven, for some, or ten years. List every job you've ever had, list every place you've ever lived, give character references, give neighbor references, provide everything going into personal habits, alcohol consumption, illegal substance consumption. And then some simple but very critical questions, like whether you've ever tried to overthrow the US government.

That should be an easy one!
Yes, it should. Simultaneously as you're filling this out, DHS is using LexisNexis and checking out someone's background to see if they've said anything in the media that would be compromising of the current administration, or if they have any liens on them. In some cases, the cursory check would turn up a criminal record, or a warrant, or an investigation. In those instances, we would immediately tell the person, "We can't tell you exactly why, but unfortunately we're gonna have to end your candidacy." But if there weren't red flags, they would continue to go through the SF-86 investigation.

Are people already working while this process goes on?
Yes, they are. In my case, it took a number of months for me to get full clearance. From the time that someone is notified that they were a candidate to where they are actually sitting butts-in-seats, that might take a month to six months. This wasn't somebody getting their full clearance. Usually what would happen is they would get an interim clearance in which DHS and OPM would consider "suitability." This meant that somebody did not have a criminal history, bad credit, substance abuse issues, or anything that would immediately compromise them or open them up for blackmail.

Is there a list of disqualifying factors that are deemed morally incompatible with government work, or is this entirely about making sure people aren't susceptible to blackmail?
If there was a moral misalignment if you will, that was pretty much taken care of within the cursory vet that I mentioned. That was pretty much a judgment/policy call that came from the White House or the White House liaison within the department. As far as the SF-86, that was done strictly on the basis of finding something that was derogatory and could make them susceptible to blackmail.

How did Rob Porter even make it to the point where the FBI was vetting him? Isn't that like, the third level of all this?
I can tell you that had Porter been part of the previous administration that most likely would have been picked up immediately, and he wouldn't have reached the FBI investigation. If we had his information, you could easily do a LexisNexis search and see if there was any court filing or complaint. That person's background investigation would have been immediately halted.

So the FBI ultimately said to not give Porter clearance, but then it was up to the White House decided to ignore it?
It's really problematic. For us, if we were told someone wouldn't get their clearance it would be a total non-starter. There's no point in having that person employed, so they would be immediately let go. Not only would they not be able to perform their job, but they'd pose a security risk. The FBI wouldn't make a judgment call; they are just giving the cold, hard facts. It would then fall onto the White House to make the necessary action that's needed to remove the person. Someone could find out about these allegations and go to the survivors of the assault and pay them and use them as leverage to get [Porter] to do something.

This guy was a honeypot target, and its surprising that those who made the decisions to ignore the FBI chose to do so, because he's a clear vulnerability from a national security standpoint in the most classic sense.

If he didn't have a security clearance, how would he be able to do his job, which consisted of handling a lot of classified information?
If he did have access to classified information, then someone would have had to curtail a lot of the protection on that information to give him access to it. There are various systems that would contain this kind of information, specifically when it would come to the president's daily briefing. That would be compiled on multiple systems, on separate networks, in different locations in regards to SCIFs, or sensitive compartmentalized information facilities. Those are secured rooms or facilities that are soundproof, and there are no electronic devices allowed in. They're areas where you can have sensitive conversations and house sensitive material.

In order to access those facilities, you would need the clearance and various badges and access codes. However, it has been known that people would sometimes be like, "Oh, I know you. I'll let you in the door, I know you're getting your security clearance soon, so come on in anyway." With that being said, I don't know the particulars here, but perhaps someone was letting him in the door, literally, or providing him with folders of classified information. And if that does turn out to be the case, then not only is Porter culpable for all of this, the people who did that are equally as culpable, as that is one of the cardinal sins in security.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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