When Donald Trump won the Republican nomination for the presidency last year, a number of his political opponents expressed concern about his being granted access to classified information in the standard candidate briefings. At the time, I spoke with Lanhee Chen, who, as chief policy adviser to Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign, was familiar with the briefing process. He made an important point about why Trump was automatically given clearance to hear top secret information without undergoing the standard review process.
"The assumption is that a certain amount of sensitive information can be shared with the nominee because the nominee has been publicly vetted," Chen said. He also noted another qualification that might help ease those concerns: the briefing itself wasn't at the level that would be given to an actual president.
With Trump's election, of course, he became privy to any and all top-secret information that he might desire. In light of The Washington Post's report that Trump revealed some of that information in a meeting with Russia's foreign minister, it seems appropriate to explain how the levels of clearance work - and how non-presidents are screened to gain them.
Laura K. Donohue is a professor at Georgetown Law who directs the school's Center on National Security and the Law and runs Georgetown's annual security clearance workshop (necessitated by the number of graduates who go into government service). She walked me through the process in a phone call Tuesday.
It's important to first understand that system. There are three levels of clearance: Confidential, Secret and Top Secret. You can think of these being sort of like access badges allowing you to into different buildings full of secrets. The access itself doesn't drop secrets into your lap, it just clears you for the possibility of viewing particular materials.
A 2016 report from the congressional Research Service detailed how many people hold clearance at each level. As of October 2015, about 2.9 million people held Confidential or Secret clearance and an additional 1.4 million held Top Secret clearance. During that fiscal year, 639,000 more clearances were approved.
The process for doing so, Donohue said, is expensive and often time-consuming.
"Typically, you would apply for a job at an agency and then that agency, if you have to have access to classified material in the course of your job, they would be the ones to sponsor you and foot the bill," she said. At that point, the FBI - or, often, contractors - will begin their investigation. The overarching process is handled by the Office of Personnel Management, now through the department's National Background Investigations Bureau.
Gaining clearance at the Top Secret level took as little as 134 days at the NSA and as long as 395 at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, according to that CRS report. Of course, that process can be expedited, such as when a president needs to staff up his administration. "If it needs to be done quickly they can do it quickly," Donohue said.
What they're looking for varies.
"If you're handling info for instance that has a very high foreign intelligence component to it," she said, "they might be looking more carefully at your international connections. All of them require a background check, but some of them they might run down more leads. You might have to turn over your financial information." There's a standard form; it's more than 100 pages long.
The whole purpose is to determine whether the person can be trusted with information, Donohue said, in multiple senses.
"From themselves, in the sense that, are they going to break the law or disregard it? Or are they high on drugs and not careful with information? These types of things," she said. "Or can they be compromised or put into a compromised position by others." If, for example, someone has a gambling problem or a lot of outstanding debt, or a secret that they would not want to have revealed.
What's more, "they look at questions of integrity and honesty and if you hold others' confidences," she added. If not, that won't speak well to the question at hand. Incidentally, if you are rejected for clearance, you can appeal the decision.
Using the metaphor above, the clearance means you are allowed in the building, but someone still has to determine that you should be let in the door. The guiding principle is whether the person being given access to classified information needs to know it; if not, there's no reason to give them access.
Once clearance is granted, there are categories of classified information to which you might have access, if you're cleared for Top Secret information. Those additional categories are Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI), and Special Access Programs (SAPs). The former includes information about the sources and methods of obtaining the information. The latter compartmentalizes particularly sensitive information.
When the media mentions "code-word information," that's a reference to the use of code words to identify particular compartmentalized information, as former Homeland Security deputy chief of staff Jonathan Lee explained in a blog post at Just Security. In other words, that information is at the highest levels of clearance.
Donohue notes that the rules governing security clearance are set by the president. (The current guidelines are set under Executive Order 13467.) As we've learned over the past day, it's also the case that the president gets to determine whether classified information is then declassified. Which puts Trump into the rarefied position of both gaining access to classified information without undergoing the screening process and then being able to determine when and how that information can be shared with whomever he deems appropriate.