December 14, 2016
If irony won voters, the left would have them in spades. After all, the same Democrats who were quick to ignore Hillary Clinton’s reckless disdain for security rules are now claiming that Donald Trump’s appointees pose a national security risk for being too successful in the private sector.
According to commentators on the left, various business dealings and relationships, some of which happen to be overseas, raise foreign influence concerns that disqualify Trump appointees from obtaining security clearances. Such claims are made with authoritative pronouncement as “fact,” yet they evince a fundamental lack of understanding about how the security clearance process actually works.
Certainly, Trump’s nominees should face the same scrutiny from the national security community as anyone else. Politically-blind background investigations are crucial to the integrity of the federal workforce; no one is entitled to a security clearance, even those who have previously served our country honorably.
By all accounts, that is happening. The FBI’s Special Inquiries Squad, the entity charged with investigating presidential appointees and White House staff members, is already carefully examining those very overseas business entanglements and relationships before granting security clearances. There is no indication of political interference in the process.
The security vetting for Trump’s nominees is both extensive and invasive. I experienced it personally during my own White House service more than a decade ago. While there is no doubt that foreign connections should be scrupulously investigated, claiming, as many on the left have done, that overseas business interests or relationships are a per se national security threat – and, therefore, an unmitigable risk – is not a legally supportable argument. If it were, the executive teams of every major U.S. defense contractor would be barred from obtaining a clearance. Our economy and our national defense posture would be crippled.
The reality is that many security clearance holders are wealthy individuals with overseas business interests, ownership of foreign property, or foreign contacts. That includes ties to places such as Russia and Taiwan that have whipped the left into a frenzy. These people obtain security clearances because they are willing to listen to the government’s concerns and do something to mitigate them: divest; show that the totality of their investment in a foreign country constitutes only a small fraction of their net worth, thereby eliminating the potential for financial coercion; or, otherwise satisfy security officials that their allegiance to the United States far outweighs their overseas ties.
There are a variety of ways in which foreign influence concerns can be effectively and ethically neutralized in today’s global business climate. The wealthier the individual, the less likely overseas business interests are considered a coercion concern. The deeper the individual’s roots are in the United States, the more zealously he or she will likely resist espionage efforts by foreign associates. And, an individual with holdings and contacts spread across multiple countries – including the president-elect and many of his appointees – is less of a security risk than someone with investments or relationships concentrated in a single nation.
Incidentally, the process by which an individual mitigates government security concerns like the ones described above is governed by a 1995 Executive Order signed by then-President Bill Clinton. The left would do well to remember that it was a Democrat president who recognized that knee-jerk reactions about things like potential “foreign influence” served neither the interests of due process or national security. In the event that a background investigation does develop particularized concerns about a nominee, he is entitled to his proverbial day in court to contest those concerns – not a trial by media circus. There is a robust and little-known legal system set up to handle these types of cases, and it generally works.
The security clearance process is not perfect. Serious reforms are needed to close the significant disparities in investigative quality among agencies. But there is no evidence that those who oversee it, particularly at the FBI, are not competent and committed to a politically neutral process. Most importantly, there is no reason to believe that these career officials would not defend their prerogatives vigorously in the face of undue influence. The notion that Trump’s appointees pose a precipitous national security risk simply because of overseas business ties is absurd.