It began with a tweet, as so many things seem to do these days.
Like many, William Antholis, the director of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, was troubled by allegations of domestic violence against President Trump’s staff secretary, Rob Porter. Porter’s two ex-wives told FBI agents of the abuse during a routine background check on the high-level White House aide. Porter, who has denied the allegations, resigned last week when they became public.
As the allegations surfaced, Antholis took to Twitter to condemn domestic violence and outline another concern that had not yet received much attention. The staff secretary position typically requires the highest level of security clearance, and it was unclear if Porter had that clearance after abuse allegations stalled his background check. A security breach at that level, Antholis said, could threaten intelligence operations around the world.
He would know. Among several government positions, Antholis was on the National Security Council staff during Bill Clinton’s presidency and was a deputy of the acting staff secretary. He spent years observing the daily operations of the same position Porter held.
His concerns quickly took off. As Antholis’ tweet gained more and more attention, Politico wanted him to pen an op-ed, and CNN came calling. He appeared on the network Monday to discuss the problem with anchor Don Lemon. Fellow Miller Center scholar Chris Lu – who led Barack Obama’s 2008 transition – also addressed the issue on MSNBC.
Even more remarkably, the same questions started coming up at the White House, as Trump’s press team faced a barrage of questions about Porter’s security clearance at press briefings this week. FBI Director Christopher Wray outlined the background-check process during a previously scheduled Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats also weighed in, calling the security clearance process “broken” in an interview Tuesday.
Suddenly, it seemed everyone was asking the questions Antholis had raised.
As the debate continues to swirl, we spoke with Antholis about the sudden attention, the ins and outs of the security clearance process and the serious risks that come with any violation.
Q. You started addressing this issue on Twitter over the weekend and have now become a part of the national discussion. How did that unfold?
A. The timing was oddly perfect. The Miller Center had just completed its First Year Project, where we had deeply examined the challenges any White House faces during a president’s first year.
One of the biggest challenges is assembling a team and managing the flow of classified information. In my own experience, I had watched that challenge unfold while serving in the White House during the first year of Bill Clinton’s second term. So, this story was not new to me, from an academic and a personal perspective.
What was new was seeing someone operate with interim clearance for a year in such an important position, as Porter did. I started tweeting about this issue on Saturday, and it quickly gained attention. Within an hour, my small set of tweets had been retweeted more than 300 times. An editor from Politico reached out about an op-ed. By the time I submitted the op-ed at about 4 p.m. that afternoon (before going to watch UVA play Virginia Tech in basketball – my own personal deadline), White House reporters had started picking up my tweets.
By the next morning, reporters were in the White House asking the same questions I had framed. We know we are in a position to frame policy discussions here at the Miller Center, but seeing how fast this happened was a bit extraordinary for me.
Q. Let’s get into some of your concerns about Rob Porter’s case. First, can you explain his position as White House staff secretary. What does that position do?
A. As in any complex organization, the White House has many different offices and voices. When a document goes to the president for his review or decision, someone needs to make sure that he is hearing the voices that need to be heard. The staff secretary is that person, responsible for ensuring that all due diligence has been done on any information that goes to the president. He or she works with a similar position on the National Security Council staff to compile information, and would be the last person that sees it before it goes to the president.
Q. What level of security clearance does that position typically require?
A. Typically, staff secretaries have what is known as Top Secret/Special Compartmentalized Information Clearance. In the intelligence and national security world, that is known as “top secret” or “code word” clearance. It is the highest level of clearance.
That level of clearance is important because, as the staff secretary sifts through the many memos needing the president’s attention, he or she will need to know if those memos have top secret information and what the information is.
Q. Porter was granted interim security clearance as his background check continued. Is that unusual and why could that be a problem?
A. Interim clearance is usually granted at the “secret” level of clearance, below “top-secret.” It is very rare to give someone interim top-secret clearance. There are a clear set of guidelines for when that is necessary – such as during a national emergency – and what needs to be done to grant that very special clearance.
Typically, that would include a positive, written affirmation that the person in question has shown the highest levels of trustworthiness. In the case of the White House, that affirmation would likely come from the chief of staff, the president’s legal adviser and the national security adviser. We do not know yet exactly what level of interim clearance – top-secret or a lower level – Porter was given or who authorized it.
Q. How might the White House have overcome this hurdle without violating security protocols?
A. Porter having interim clearance for so long placed a burden on Chief of Staff John Kelly and the National Security Council to either work with him, if he had the correct top-secret level of interim clearance, or work around him, if he did not.
We should be careful about jumping to a conclusion about Kelly’s role. He came into a chaotic situation this summer and, depending on exactly what kind of interim clearance Porter had, he may or may not have had to reauthorize clearance. We don’t know for sure right now, though it is something the media has focused on.
Q. What are the dangers of not having proper security clearance at that level of the White House?
A. Intelligence officials all over the world put their lives at risk when they share highly confidential information. They do that trusting that anyone with access to that information will not reveal where they got it. If I am an American intelligence agent embedded in a hostile foreign government, I need to trust that any sensitive information I report is known only to a few select people. Otherwise, that foreign government might be able to figure out who I am, and my position and my life would be in jeopardy.
In Porter’s case, many speculate that the allegations against him could make him susceptible to blackmail. Aside from that, there is also a basic concern about mental stability, volatility and character. I do not know him, but at work he appears to have been a focused, organized person who gained the trust of his coworkers. He also appears to have been a different person at home with very serious allegations in his past. That is why we do background checks – to uncover those things and fully understand someone’s psychology.
Q. Is there any precedent for this?
A. There are enormous precedents for people being denied security clearances or having clearance revoked. My expectation is that this happens somewhat regularly.
What feels different about this case to me is that, for one year, someone served in this very important job without a permanent clearance. If we learn that Porter did not have even interim top-secret clearance, it will reinforce the view that the current White House organization is unorthodox, if not chaotic.
Q. As we learn more about how the White House and the FBI handled Porter’s case, what will you be looking for?
A. We need to know what level of interim clearance Porter was given and if he handled highly sensitive information, such as the President’s Daily Briefing. That is particularly important because it includes a daily summary of all of the important intelligence coming in from highly classified sources. If Porter was handling such a document on an interim clearance that was not a top-secret clearance, that would be a significant violation of the standard protocols for top-secret information.