Pressure is growing on the State Department to revoke the security clearances of several ofHillary Clinton’s closest aides, potentially jeopardizing her ability to name her own national security team should she become president.
The move could force Clinton to make an uncomfortable choice: abandon longtime advisers or face another political maelstrom by overriding the White House security agency.
It’s not clear if Clinton or longtime aides Huma Abedin and Jake Sullivan still hold active security clearances. The information is protected under the Privacy Act and absent permission from each person, the only way it can be made public is if State sees an overriding public interest in disclosing it — an unlikely scenario.
But department spokesman John Kirby said last week that former officials could still face “administrative sanctions” for past actions — sanctions that could in theory make it incredibly difficult to be approved for security clearance in the future.
Clinton, should she be elected president, would be functionally exempt from security vetting as a constitutional officer — it’s “the reason it was always indictment or bust” with Clinton, said Bradley Moss, a lawyer who specializes in classified information cases. The only circumstance in which she’s likely to become a “federal employee” again is if she’s elected president.
But for Abedin and Sullivan, the loss or rejection of their security credentials would be a career-ender in Washington.
And according to several lawyers who specialize in security clearances, anyone with the kind of documented track record that now dogs Abedin and Sullivan would struggle to retain their access to restricted information. Although no one was charged, FBI Director James Comey was unequivocal that Clinton and her aides acted “extremely carelessly.”
“If a client came to me with these kinds of allegations related to their prior use of classified information, I would say, ‘You have less than a 20 percent chance of surviving,’” Moss said.
Comey on Tuesday rejected criminal charges against Clinton or her aides, but he laid out a damning litany of violations, including the transmission of classified information through her private, unsecured email server.
Two days after the FBI director’s remarks, the State Department announced that it was reopening its internal investigation into how Clinton and her staff handled classified information.
Republicans — outraged that Clinton appears to have escaped unscathed from the roiling scandal over her use of an unauthorized server — have seized on the security clearance issue as a fresh line of attack on the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has demanded that Clinton be denied clearance to receive the national security briefings usually given to presidential nominees to prepare them for taking over the nation’s highest office. Likely Republican nominee Donald Trump will also receive the briefings.
Others called out Clinton’s aides by name, demanding that any active privileges they may hold be immediately revoked.
Normally, the decision to approve or deny security clearance rests with the employing federal agency. In the case of White House staff, both the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Administration’s Personnel Security Division would likely be involved.
The guidelines that officials use are standard across government. They provide a framework of concerns that agencies are allowed to consider when deciding whether to grant access — and prior history of mishandling classified information would certainly fall within the scope of a permitted concern, Moss said.
If someone is denied, there is an administrative appeals process but no right to judicial review.
But in theory, a President Clinton could override any concerns that the OPM or the Office of Administration might have.
“If the president wants somebody cleared, somebody’s gonna get cleared. That’s just the bottom line,” said Bill Savarino, a D.C. lawyer who also specializes in security clearances.
If Clinton does exercise that authority, Savarino says, it would likely happen behind the scenes — and “there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it because the president is the one that sets [national security policy].”
But given the public attention that the issue has drawn — largely thanks to Republican outcry — it’s likely the appearance of Abedin and Sullivan on Clinton’s staff wouldn’t go unnoticed.
“It would be controversial to say the least,” said Moss. He described such a presidential override as “unprecedented,” although he noted that the mere presence of Abedin and Sullivan on Clinton’s staff wouldn’t be definitive proof that she had intervened in the clearance process.
On Capitol Hill, the more immediate concern appears to be forcing a reckoning on Clinton for her use of the server. Following the Justice Department announcement that Clinton would not face charges, Republicans pivoted to multiple new lines of attack.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) on Thursday threw his weight behind a bill from Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) that would “prohibit any officer or employee of the federal government who has exercised extreme carelessness in the handling of classified information from being granted or retaining a security clearance.”
The same day, a group of 10 senators sent a strongly worded letter urging Secretary of StateJohn Kerry to revoke any standing privileges held by Clinton, Abedin, Mills and Sullivan, arguing that “failure to impose any sanctions for these clear violations of State Department procedure undermines the integrity of the State Department’s system for handling classified information.”
Meanwhile, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) vowed to send a criminal referral to the FBI demanding that the agency investigate whether Clinton perjured herself when discussing the server during her 11-hour testimony before the House Select Committee on Benghazi.
Even Comey — carefully apolitical in his public statements — has hinted that Clinton and her aides could face repercussions beyond the judicial system.
“To be clear, this is not to suggest that in similar circumstances, a person who engaged in this activity would face no consequences,” Comey said during a summary of his findings that concluded with his decision not to recommend charges.
“To the contrary, those individuals are often subject to security or administrative sanctions.”