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Ask Cokie: Listeners Want To Know About Security Clearances

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The security clearance problems of Jared Kushner and other members of the Trump administration are news but are not necessarily new. A scandal erupted in President Clinton's administration after reports that many people were working without security clearances. That was 1994. And now in 2018, many of you had questions for Cokie Roberts, who answers our questions about politics and how the government work.

Hi there, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve. Nice to talk to you.

INSKEEP: Nice to talk to you, too. Let's start with the basics. We have this question.

PATRICK WELLS: My name is Patrick Wells. I currently live in Calabasas, Calif. Why can the president not make decisions about who gets access to classified information?

INSKEEP: Cokie?

ROBERTS: He actually can make the decision. As the commander in chief, he has broad authority to do that, but it hasn't been the practice of presidents. And President Trump has said that the Kushner clearance - his son-in-law's - would be left to chief of staff John Kelly. By the way, presidents, Congress, the Supreme Court - none of them need clearance. But the Cabinet, the White House staff, and many, many, many others throughout the government do.

INSKEEP: The presidents and Congress don't need clearance because they're elected by the people, right? They automatically - they are representing us.

ROBERTS: The people are the clearance process.

INSKEEP: OK. But then there's the question of people who are hired. And they're the ones who have to seek security clearance. And our next question gets to the mechanics of that.

SEAN THURSBY: My name is Sean Thursby from Jacksonville, Fla. What do the different levels of classification mean? And what qualifies a person for those different levels?

ROBERTS: The lowest level is confidential. And that means that if the information became public, it would damage national security. Up a level comes secret, and that information would cause serious harm to national security. Then you go to top secret, where the information would cause grave harm. There's some even more secret classifications inside top secret, but - well, we can't talk about those.

INSKEEP: OK.

ROBERTS: Basically, it's a need-to-know standard. And it pretty much attaches to the job. But it doesn't move from job to job. In other words, if you have top secret at the Department of Energy, for instance, it doesn't transfer to Defense.

INSKEEP: We have another question now from a listener who goes by the Twitter handle @NefariousNewt, who asks about all these interim clearances we've been hearing about, like the one that Jared Kushner had. The question is, has it always been common practice to allow people to see classified material at a certain level before they secured the proper clearances? And if not, when did this start?

ROBERTS: Actually, interim clearances have been fairly common in order to get people working quickly. And it just involves a bare-bones investigation of basically criminal and credit records. It should be short-term. But Steve, this is such a huge problem with backlog. Congress tried to solve it by passing legislation to mandate that 90 percent of clearances would be done within 60 days. But there are just so many of them. Think of all those defense contractors. One report this January said that 700,000 people were waiting for final first-time clearance or reinvestigation.

INSKEEP: Reinvestigation - well, that word leads to a question by Merle Merlot, who asks - once you receive security clearance, how long is it valid? And does it end when your job does?

ROBERTS: You get periodic reviews - every five years for top secret, 10 years for secret, 15 years for confidential. Generally, you can keep your clearance for 24 months after you leave a job. But you can't have access to classified material during that time. And Steve, you know, this all grew out of a ruling in the 1883 civil service act that a government employee should have character, reputation and trustworthiness.

INSKEEP: OK. It is no secret that we've been listening to commentator Cokie Roberts and that you can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and the government work by emailing us at askcokie@npr.org or tweeting us with the hashtag #AskCokie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.