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Let’s talk about security clearances and national security

While I don’t cover U.S. politics any more, given the current state of affairs, and the ongoing classified document investigations into Former President Donald Trump, and President Joe Biden, I thought it might be helpful to talk about national security, careerists versus political, and security clearances for people who may not be familiar with the inner workings of the White House and why the classified docs issue is a big deal.

If we don’t learn from history, hold bad actors accountable, it repeats and gets worse.

                                                      — Marinka                                              

An excerpt from my book, The Whistleblower, published in 2011.

Shortly after firing off a letter of introduction with her resume, Linda [Tripp] was scheduled to interview with Director of Presidential Letters Maureen Hudson, a twenty-year veteran who hired career federal civil servants known as “careerists” in the White House Office of Presidential Correspondence.

Careerists work for the institution of the presidency as opposed to “politicals” who are appointed at the pleasure of the president. Most careerists remain until retirement. While politicals employ most positions within the White House complex, they change with each administration. Political appointees are loyal not only to the institution, but to the incumbent and advance the administration’s agenda.

Thrilled and nervous about her interview, Linda knew filling the floaters slot was tough because competition was fierce, the scrutiny was unparalleled, and few slots opened up.

All that made her worry about botching the interview, that spring of 1991, on the ride into D.C. The bus dropped her off at the Old Executive Office Building (OEOB), the work-horse of the White House complex located seconds away from The Residence and the West Wing.

Bordering State Place and Pennsylvania Avenue, the OEOB was built between 1871 and 1888, epitomizing the wedding-cake style of architecture. Originally, it housed the War, State, and Navy Departments.

At the OEOB entrance, Linda checked in with the Secret Service agents, providing them with her identification including her social security number. After being cleared in as an appointment through the WAVE (Workers and Visitors Entry System) logs, Linda received a pink visitor’s pass with an “A” to wear on a chain. She passed by massive oak doors with small brass plates indicating room numbers looking for Room 60 to go to her interview. In 1998, the WAVE logs served as evidence in Kenneth Starr’s Clinton-Lewinsky investigation.

Maureen Hudson, attractive with a youthful appearance, interviewed Linda at her office. “As we talked, Maureen tried to put me at ease,” Linda recalled, “but despite her warmth and kindness the interview was intimidating because it meant so much to me.”

Over Maureen’s shoulder through the window, Linda could see the White House and she was tense. Overlooking unblemished green grounds, she saw a Marine guard posted outside the West Wing lobby, indicating the president was inside. Further down the north portico, a press standup began shooting. Then a limousine drove past the dull-black, tall iron fence decorated halfway-up with gold stars and eagles. Which Cabinet Secretary was meeting with the president about which policy? she wondered.

“I was so insecure. I thought I’d blown the interview,” Linda recounted. “Why would they hire me, the hick from Morristown, New Jersey, when they could hire anybody? How could I be so lucky as to work at the White House?” But they did hire her. On April 29, 1991, Linda’s dream came true.

That April morning anticipation woke her up early. In a few hours she was going to work at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, serving in President George H.W. Bush’s White House. Giving in to her excitement-induced insomnia, she arrived early— this time, as a poised staffer. Still not believing her good fortune, she pinched herself. When she crossed the threshold of Room 60, Hudson emerged from her office, “Linda, soon you’ll be across the street at the White House,” she welcomed.

Clearances: White House employee security background questionnaire

Hudson’s assistant handed her a stack of routine paperwork for staffers to fill out, then they went to the presidential correspondence typing unit where floaters worked when they weren’t floating. It’s where presidential letters and Executive Orders are quickly generated in massive numbers; everything from copying proposed legislation to answering fan letters to First Pets. Some letters were sweet; “Dear Mr. President. I am five. My dog, Sugar, wants to come to your house and play with Ranger.” Some were heartbreaking; “My three-year-old son has leukemia. Please focus more time and money on cancer research.”

Maureen introduced Linda to other floaters and careerists, and assigned her a cubicle when they sat down. Between the clatter of word processing, the ladies swapped stories about their families, their lives. From Linda’s vantage point there was no political agenda in sight. All served with distinction without regard to party. Some had served in administrations back to John F. Kennedy. Respect and decorum permeated the office.

Security clearances

The paperwork Linda was given earlier was the mandatory (for both politicals and careerists) White House employee security background questionnaire conducted by the FBI. It’s the basis for their rigorous investigation to determine a staffer’s level of security clearance. Linda had undergone background investigations before, including one at the Department of Defense for secret and top-secret clearance, and full top-secret Delta Force clearance in North Carolina. But to work in the West Wing, the FBI background check started from scratch. Until it was completed, and she received the green light, she’d remain in the OEOB to do whatever she could and do it proudly.

Security clearance within the Executive branch is determined by four key criteria: Character, Associates, Reputation, and Loyalty (acronym CARL). Often “loyalty” is misinterpreted as loyalty to the president, but it means loyalty to the flag, to the United States. Every five years careerists are re-cleared. At the time, it took roughly three months and cost approximately $30,000 per person to clear. When the FBI goes out in the field to document a person’s character, they interview people from your past and present searching for reasons why you can’t be hired.

Used by six presidents, the clearance objectives were designed to protect national security, the president, taxpayers, and the White House by ensuring that no staffer had done anything that could embarrass the president or hurt the country. Blackmail, addiction to drugs, criminal wrongdoing, harboring a hidden allegiance to an enemy group, a hostile nation, or an unpatriotic action meant no clearance and no job. Under the Clinton administration a new criteria was added to the security clearance: determining party loyalty. Previously, it had never mattered because careerists serve the institution of the presidency.

Once the investigation is completed, the FBI file becomes two-fold: first, a file containing incontrovertible information, and second, a RAW DATA file comprised of unverifiable information, including hearsay.[i]

Information in the RAW data portion could be viewed as a fast track to the tabloids because it might contain names and numbers of people with questionable credentials or motives. In the wrong hands, RAW data could intimidate an innocent person.

The government’s ability to recruit qualified and decent people largely depends upon the confidentiality of background investigations. Selected characterizations leaked from an FBI file could ruin careers and reputations, which is why it’s illegal to release them. Perception often sticks before the reality can erase it and the damage is done.

An employee’s level of clearance is represented by colored laminated passes hung on a chain that staffers are required to wear. Orange pass holders have access to the OEOB and New Executive Office Building (NEOB), and covet the pass, the blue pass. A blue pass with a “W” means unescorted access to the West Wing and the president. A blue pass with “RES” allows access to the West Wing and to the First Family’s private residence …

“Is there anything in your background which could surface and hurt the president or the country?” Hudson asked Linda that day in April 1991. Her mind flashed backwards. No. She had to nothing to hide. Nothing in her past would prevent her from serving in the White House…

In 2005, former Clinton National Security Advisor Sandy Berger was caught red handed “taking classified documents [related to the 9/11 commission investigations] from the National Archives and cutting them up with scissors.”[ii] “In his plea, Berger also admitted that he concealed and removed his handwritten notes from the Archives prior to a classification review.”[iii]

| End Excerpt


[i] Federal Bureau of Investigations, see background checks.

[ii] “Clinton adviser [Sandy Berger] to plead guilty to taking classified material,” CBC News · Posted: Mar 31, 2005

[iii] Notable Thefts From The National Archives

Both sides are being investigated

I think it’s good and a positive development that both Former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden are being investigated for their handling of classified documents. People will be able to see the investigations play out and start having confidence in the justice system. Everything is too politicized right now.

Want to learn more?