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Rep. Gerald Connolly On White House Security Clearances

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ever since presidential aide Rob Porter was dismissed for his history with domestic violence, the White House has been under pressure to explain how it issues security clearances. Porter and other White House officials, including the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner, have been operating on temporary clearances that still allowed them to see secret information. The House Oversight Committee launched an investigation and demanded that the White House turn over detailed information about the staffers who've been operating on temporary clearances.

We are joined now in the studio by Congressman Gerry Connolly. He's a Democrat from Virginia and a member of the House Oversight Committee.

Congressman, thanks so much for coming in.

GERRY CONNOLLY: Great to be with you, Rachel.

MARTIN: What specific information were you seeking from the White House? And did you get it?

CONNOLLY: No. We did not get it. And we were seeking broad information about - what is your process for granting an interim security clearance while pending a full security clearance? And what are the issues that have prevented prominent people in the White House, like Jared Kushner and Rob Porter before him, who did not get their full security clearance? Now, had the White House bothered to answer, we would have probably learned about Rob Porter long before, frankly, that incident unfolded to the enormous embarrassment of the White House.

MARTIN: So the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, sent a memo on February 16, trying to clarify all of this. In addition to downgrading Jared Kushner's security status, he said he was going to discontinue any top-secret clearance for staffers whose background investigations have been pending. And he said that he had stopped issuing most temporary clearances back in the fall. So does that not satisfy you?

CONNOLLY: No, it doesn't satisfy us. Let's take Rob Porter. Mr. Kelly - General Kelly knew, apparently, that there were real problems, including charges of physical abuse against two former wives of Mr. Porter, and nonetheless kept him on and actually gave him more and expanded duties, including accompanying the president to Davos and including helping to write parts of the State of the Union address and effectively making him more like a deputy chief of staff. That's very troubling.

MARTIN: Are these processes not standardized? I mean, does each administration come up with new criteria to issue security clearances?

CONNOLLY: I think this White House does. I think certainly - we don't remember any such instance in the eight years of the Obama White House. And I don't remember any in the previous eight years in the George W. Bush White House. So it is fairly routinized. And generally, those presidents didn't hire people with lots of personal issues or huge potential conflicts of interest financially, unlike this White House. And so it was a recipe for a problem.

But we're talking about the country's secrets. We're talking about protecting the security of the country, sources and methods to do so being at risk because people without the proper credentials are privy to information they shouldn't be privy to.

MARTIN: President Trump himself has criticized the process, saying that it has created this backlog. Here's the president speaking at a news conference last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We inherited a system that's broken. It's a system where many people have just - it's taken months and months and months to get many people that do not have a complex financial - you know, complicated financials - they don't have that. And it's still taken months. It's a broken system.

MARTIN: Does he have a point there?

CONNOLLY: If he's talking about the backlog in security clearances in general, yes. Yeah. But we're talking about a huge system. We've got close to 4 million people with security clearances of one kind or another. And of course that's constantly changing, and they need to be updated. So - but when you're talking about the White House, why did you hire people you knew had complicated backgrounds? And in the case with Jared Kushner, who didn't tell the truth about his contacts with foreign entities and had to amend his filing form three times.

MARTIN: Just in seconds, what are the consequences if the White House doesn't give you that information?

CONNOLLY: You don't get a security clearance. And you don't get to sit in on...

MARTIN: But if they don't give you the information that our committee is seeking.

CONNOLLY: Oh - to our committee. Well, we've asked that we subpoena them. And unfortunately, the Republicans have decided to circle the wagons and do nothing.

MARTIN: Democratic Congressman Gerry Connolly of Virginia.

Thanks for your time.

CONNOLLY: Pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.