Monday, November 14, 2016

President not required to have security clearance

All during the campaign I wondered, vis a vis Donald Trump, at what point do presidential candidates get vetted for security clearance?   Or do they at all?

Clinton, of course, has had top security clearance, despite the attempts to smear her politically as a big risk to our national security with her emails.  The truth is that there is no evidence that her private, home-based server was ever hacked -- while many official government agencies were hacked, including the Homeland Security and the Pentagon.

I didn't really pursue it, because I didn't think it would come to this:   Donald Trump as president.   Donald Trump, as far as we know, has never been given a security vetting, even when they began giving him national security briefings, even after all the rumors about his connections and possible big debts to Russian oligarchs.

So I was wondering aloud about this the other night at a dinner meeting.   My colleague Jackie decided to check it out and emailed me a link to   This turns out to be a web site for people seeking jobs or contracts with the federal government;  and it has all the information one needs to know, including what security clearances are needed for what jobs.

Here's their answer, which was updated on July 25, 2016:

"The president of the United States is not subject to a security screening and does not hold a security clearance. . . .   Election to the nation’s highest office is the ultimate conferral of trust upon an American citizen by the body politic. Moreover, classification policy largely stems from executive orders, which originate from the president’s pen. He or she makes the rules for classification and the treatment of classified material. As commander-in-chief, all military secrets and secret-keepers serve at the whim of the president. If a president so chooses, he or she can more or less learn everything there is to know about anything there is to know. . . ."

There are certain areas that access to the president is denied, however.   The identity of our undercover intelligence officers abroad is one category.    Individual census records is another;   although not classified as national security, they are protected by the courts under privacy rights.    The same is true for FBI, Welfare, and Immigration records;   it is also true for individual IRS records, although a president may request in writing and sign the request in order to view an individual record -- sort of like getting a warrant, I suppose.

The article then concludes:

"Should the president have to submit to a security screening? Of course not. Aside from the basic unworkability of such a scheme, the total access of America’s secrets by the elected chief executive is an important check on the power of the nation’s military and entrenched secrecy apparatus. One hopes, however, that the awesome responsibility of safeguarding our secrets is fully imparted on whomever occupies the Oval Office. It perhaps falls to those around the president—the men and women who have been subjected to some of the the most rigorous security screenings in government—to suggest to the president the reason and urgency of the classification of any files that might be handled, and to fulfill humbly, and by example, the duty that comes in dealing with them.

Logically, this makes sense.   But I had in mind security vetting before even being a major party's nominee, much less being sworn into office.    I suppose others might argue that this would open the process up to political shenanigans if the party in power was about to lose control to an opposition party.   Ultimately, yes, the people do decide in our elections, which are the sacrosanct bedrock of democracy.

The weak leg that supports democracy, in our case, is not one of the branches of government but the "informed electorate."    We are in an age where there is a tsunami of data, very little check on what's true or not, and a low level consumption of real journalistic analysis and erudite punditry that presents sound arguments rather than sound bites originating from a divisive sea of words.

Just a thought:   I wonder how many of the "Republicans voters coming home," who cast their ballot for Trump, might have not done so if they knew that he does not have, and will not have, a security clearance.   Can we count on him sufficiently awed by the responsibility he will now hold?    I certainly hope so.


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