Here is a thought. Among all the wretched news coming out of the US this past week, two somewhat lesser items struck me. One was that Trump’s son-in-law was granted a high level security clearance, and the other was that former Brietbart boss, white supremacist and pro-Russian provocateur Steve Bannon has been given a Principal’s seat on the National Security Council, displacing both the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chefs of Staff (who now attend on an “as needed” basis).
During the time I spent in the US security apparatus I held several levels of clearance, working my way up to the fairly high Top Secret/Secret Compartmentalized Information (TS/SCI) level. The scrutiny I received in order to get that clearance was pretty intrusive and lengthy: polygraph and drug tests, background checks run by the DIA that included interviews with college friends, my former wife, work colleagues at various places and even neighbours, and an FBI background check. The process took about 10-12 months.
Bannon and Jared Kushner will be privy to sensitive information well above my ultimate pay category, and yet the latter was granted a clearance in a month and the former, for all we know, has yet to receive one. I know that elected political officials do not have to undergo the sort of background checks that I did (something that is always troublesome when congressional testimony is given behind closed doors to congresspeople who are known to have serious skeletons in their closets that make them liable to blackmail). But political appointees as well as career civil servants and military personnel must have those checks done before assuming the jobs in which they handle highly sensitive information. Mistakes have recently been made in security vetting due to outsourcing (Edward Snowden) and people can grow disenchanted and violate their oaths (Chelsea Manning), but for the most part the security vetting process allows the government some degree of confidence that the person being scrutinised cannot be blackmailed, is not financially vulnerable, is not addicted, criminally violent, mentally ill, etc.
So my questions are these: Has Steve Bannon undergone any security vetting, particularly given his background and links? Why did Mr. Kushner receive an expedited clearance rather than a thorough one? There are other individuals in the Trump White House who also have access to this type of information without full security vetting (including a Brietbart editor), but for the moment I wonder about those two fellows.
This is more than a matter of personal curiosity. Given Trump’s attacks on the military and intelligence leadership and the ongoing questions about his relationship with Russia in the wake of official claims that Russia sought to influence the US presidential election in his favour, these sort of moves could set the stage for a constitutional crisis in civil-military/intelligence relations. After all, if Bannon is talking to the Russians and Kushner is pillow whispering to Ivanka about policy matters that impact on the family businesses, why would the intelligence community and military brass feel comfortable with them receiving full classified briefs on such matters? Would it not be advisable for the security community to withhold highly sensitive information from them and direct that information to others such as NSC advisor Gen (ret.) Mike Flynn (also of some very suspect ties) on an “Eyes Only” basis? Or should they just give full briefs and let the chips fall where they may?
Neither option is a good choice, but one has potentially catastrophic consequences while the other undermines the foundations of elected civilian supremacy over the military and intelligence communities.
There are lessons here for New Zealand. The NZSIS is responsible for security vetting of people who will handle sensitive classified information, but its record is mixed in this regard. In 2010 it was revealed that Stephen Wilce, the head of the Defence Technology Agency (DTA), the scientific arm of the NZDF, was a serial fraudster and liar who among other things claimed to have been a member of the 1988 UK bobsled team and a former Royal marine who had worked for MI5 and MI6 in the UK and who had invented the guidance system for the Polaris (submarine launched and nuclear tipped) missile (you can find the NZDF Court of Inquiry Report on Mr Wilke here).
Mr. Wilce was recruited by Momentum Consulting (which was paid $25,000 for the job), a firm that included among its directors and executives National Party stalwarts Jenny Shipley and Michelle Boag. Momentum was supposed to have confirmed Mr. Wilce’s bonafides and the NZSIS was supposed to do his security vetting before granting him a high level clearance, but none of that happened. It was not until Mr. Wilce had been in the DTA job for five years that a whistleblower outed him.
In recent years the SIS has reported that security vetting takes up more and more of its time and resources, to the detriment of its domestic intelligence, foreign intelligence and counter-espionage activities. Delays in obtaining clearances are commonplace and pressures to expedite them are strong. That was exactly the situation that led to Edward Snowden being granted a high level security clearance. As it turns out, the firm that was contracted to do his security vetting by the NSA simply rubber stamped the clearance authorisation because it was swamped with such work.
Employees of New Zealand’s intelligence community and military personnel certainly undergo serious security vetting before they can be trusted to handle classified information. Perhaps, like the US, elected officials are exempt from the requirement, but what about parliamentary staffers and those employed in the DPMC? Given the revelations in the Dirty Politics book, can we be assured that the likes of Jason Ede and Phil de Joux (or even Roy Ferguson and Sir Maarten Wevers) have been vetted properly? Is everyone who is privy to classified material treated the same as military and intelligence personnel and subjected to a thorough security vetting process? Is outsourcing recruitment of people to sensitive positions still the norm? If so, is that outsourcing going to politically connected firms or is there now in place some objective standard of applicant vetting rigour that needs to be met?
I ask these questions because if anything, New Zealand appears to have a much looser government administrative system that does the US. Shoulder-tapping, “who-you-knows,” nepotism, cronyism, old boy networking–perhaps it is a small country thing but it seems to me that such practices occur fairly frequently when it comes to high level civil service positions (to say nothing of the private sector). If that is so, then it is fair to ask if these practices override the good sense need for security vetting of those involved with intelligence and military matters.
I stand to be corrected if wrong in this appraisal, but the issue still remains as to who with access to sensitive intelligence and security information outside of NZ intelligence and military officers undergo the type of security vetting that I underwent back in the US and which Messrs. Bannon and Kushner managed to avoid.
Put another way and stripped of the US baggage: are there Bannons and Kushner facsimiles in our midst?