How to lose your ‘Top Secret’ security clearance in the US

In the last week a number of White House officials – including Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law – have seen their ‘top secret’ intelligence access revoked.

Mr Kushner, a senior presidential advisor, will no longer have access to the president’s Daily Brief, the highly classified intelligence report which is given to Mr Trump every morning.

The president’s son-in-law was downgraded to accessing only "Secret" rather than "Top Secret" intelligence, which can include details of covert CIA operations and matters shared by foreign intelligence agencies.

How to gain access

Government staff seeking access to the most highly valued US secrets are quizzed on everything from how many glasses of wine they drink to their political views and their financial situation in their clearance applications.

The questions focus on several key topics: allegiance to the US; potential foreign influence; sexual behaviour; financial history; alcohol and drug use; psychological conditions; criminal behaviour; experience with handling sensitive information and personal and political activities.

After a lengthy written application, individuals must appear before officials to go through their answers and verbally confirm all the information is correct. The process can take several hours and the responses are then investigated by authorities.

How to lose access

Once you have security clearance, you are still required to be regularly questioned on your background check to maintain your security status. 

Any situations or responses which cause concern in any area can trigger a further investigation – and even result in security clearance being revoked. 

Some incidents are guaranteed to put security clearance in jeopardy. Among them are:

  • Failing a drug test
  • Failing to deal with financial debt
  • Getting arrested or charged with a crime
  • Show significant ties to or influence from foreign parties
  • Failing to handle sensitive information appropriately – e.g. accidentally storing it on a USB or taking it home
  • Showing up at work smelling of alcohol
  • Publicising your security clearance status – e.g. listing it on a publicly accessible CV

Jared Kushner

Mr Kushner, who is married to the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump, was stripped of his access to “top secret” intelligence after working on a temporary security clearance for over a year.

Jared Kushner and wife Ivanka TrumpCredit:
Mike Coppola

Mr Kushner’s permanent clearance application was reportedly slowed down because of fears that he was vulnerable to foreign officials who could take advantage of his complex business arrangements and lack of foreign policy experience. Allies of Mr Kushner said the security clearance situation would not impede him from doing his work as a senior adviser to the president.

Abbe Lowell, his lawyer, said: "Mr Kushner has done more than what is expected of him in this (security clearance) process.

"My inquiries have confirmed that there are a dozen or more people at Mr Kushner’s level whose process is delayed, that it is not uncommon for this process to take this long in a new administration, that the current backlogs are being addressed, and no concerns were raised about Mr Kushner’s application."

Rob Porter

The White House chief of staff, John Kelly, began clamping down on White House officials operating on interim security clearances in recent weeks.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, right, and Rob PorterCredit:

He did so after it emerged Rob Porter, the White House staff secretary, had worked for a year with a temporary clearance despite accusations by two former wives of domestic abuse, which he has denied.

Mr Porter quit his post after the allegations and a photograph of Cobie Holderness, his first wife, with a black eye became public.

Colbie Holderness

Jennifer Willoughby, Mr Porter’s second wife, described how she filed a restraining order against her husband in 2010 after he punched the glass on a door and refused to leave her home. She said the abuse started on their honeymoon and he once dragged her out of the shower.

Mr Porter has denied any wrongdoing, saying: “These outrageous allegations are simply false,2 he said in a statement issued in the wake of his resignation. “I have been transparent and truthful about these vile claims, but I will not further engage publicly with a co-ordinated smear campaign.”

However attention focused on how Mr Porter was able to gain high-level access after the FBI revealed it had repeatedly briefed the White House about him last year.

David Sorensen

David Sorensen, a White House speechwriter, lost his security clearance after his ex-wife claimed he was violent and verbally abusive during their two-year marriage. 

He has denied the accusations, insisting that it was actually he who was the victim, but resigned after saying he didn’t want the issue to become a "distraction" for the White House.

During the vetting procedures, the FBI was reportedly made aware of the claims, which led to questions over the White House’s insistence that it was unaware of the accusations until they were circulated by the media.

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