Opinion

Op-Ed: When Trump overruled national security professionals, he betrayed the intelligence community

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White House Presidential Advisor Ivanka Trump and Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner talk to German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen during the 55th Munich Security Conference in Munich, southern Germany, on Feb. 16.
(Thomas Kienzle / AFP / Getty Images)

Every day that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump hold the highest security clearances in the land, it insults current and former members of the U.S. intelligence community — those of us who made personal sacrifices and successfully cleared multiple hurdles to gain access to our nation’s secrets.

I joined the Army in 2002, and that summer, after I finished basic training at Ft. Jackson in South Carolina, I went into the Army intelligence program. But first I was sequestered at the base; my security clearance had been held up for unclear reasons. While others in my class headed for sunny and dry Arizona, this Montanan was stuck in the muggy, damp heat of the South.

There were several of us whose paperwork was delayed. Because we were technically still recruits, drill sergeants gave us menial work to do. We picked up rocks from sidewalks and raked debris from lawns for eight hours a day to earn our paychecks.

By August we were exhausted from waiting. We researched other Army jobs that didn’t require a security clearance. I was thinking, maybe, veterinary technician.

In Washington, my work made me privy to some of the most sensitive secrets in all of government.

Finally, in early September, when I should have been nearly half done with my intelligence training, I received word I was heading for Arizona. Shortly after I got there, I was pulled into a room where a man with a badge waited for me. He was an investigator working for the Department of Defense.

I was nervous, but he put me at ease. My mind was racing. What hadn’t I declared on my initial clearance form? Should I have mentioned my Soviet pen pal from the 1980s? I once got a speeding ticket I hadn’t cited, was that the problem?

It was none of those things. And, instead of, say, “significant disqualifying factors” related to “foreign influence, private business interests and personal conduct” — the concerns that a whistleblower says earned Kushner a denial last year — the investigator asked me about my student loan debt. I owed enough, he told me, that America’s adversaries might use it as leverage against me. How was I planning to pay it back?

I was silent for a minute, but relieved. The answer was right there in my papers, I told him. When I joined up, the government had agreed to pay off my student loan.

Now it was his turn to be silent. He shuffled through my file and then said, “Fine.” I would get my clearance.

In December 2002, I heard my daughter being born over a telephone line. Had I not been the victim of a bureaucratic mix-up, I could have been present at her birth. I barely had my final, full clearance before they sent me to war.

Every five years after that, I faithfully endured reinvestigation — filling out all the forms again and again, then being interviewed. By then I was stationed in Britain, and traveling across Europe. I had to account for every trip, every foreign contact. That was the policy to keep a clearance, and I always did the work in detail, even though I was going to the Christmas market in Prague to shop, not to meet Russian operatives, and even though my British friends were cooking me dinners, not providing me with leaked emails.

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When I went to work at the Defense Intelligence Agency in Washington, I got a better understanding of why the government demanded so much. In Washington, my work made me privy to some of the most sensitive secrets in all of government. My word and the accounting of my life on those forms were the bond that allowed me into that amazing world.

So I was aghast when the news first broke that the president’s daughter and son-in-law and other White House aides had received their clearances over the objections of security professionals. They had skated through and gained access to a level of secrets that even I was never allowed to see. Their clearances had been denied by experienced national security investigators. But the administration overruled those decisions, in about the time I was building character by picking up rocks in South Carolina.

We need to locate and fix the holes in the clearance system. The president should not be able to hand out clearances like candy to his kids or to others with demonstrable risks. No one should have imperial power over our national security apparatus.

I took my clearance seriously. I detailed every misstep I could think of, answered every question fully, waited patiently — and not so patiently — for the investigators and the professionals to pass judgment on my fitness. To abandon this protocol on one man’s whim is a betrayal of my commitment, and it’s a danger to our country.

Joshua Manning is a combat veteran and former counterterrorism analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency. He ran for the state Senate in his home state of Montana in 2016.

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