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John Kelly orders changes to the White House security clearance process

Last Updated Feb 16, 2018 5:15 PM EST

White House chief of staff John Kelly has ordered sweeping changes to the White House's security clearance process, in light of circumstances surrounding former White House staff secretary Rob Porter, accused of being violent with his ex-wives. 

In a five-page memo dated Friday, Kelly said he has called for a number of changes, including regular status reports on security clearance cases still in process, an end to top secret clearance statuses issued on an interim basis, briefings on any "significant derogatory information about senior staff" within 48 hours, and a timeframe for any new interim clearances. 

As CBS News has reported, Porter operated on an interim security clearance for a year in the White House. White House counsel Don McGahn and Kelly had been alerted that there were issues with Porter's security clearance, although the White House has yet to say exactly what they knew and when. CBS News' Arden Farhi has reported Porter warned the White House there could be issues with his background check in January 2017, and Porter's ex-girlfriend told McGahn about the former wives' abuse allegations in November. The Washington Post first reported the memo, which was later distributed by the White House. 

"The events of the last 10 days have focused immense attention on a clearance process that has been in place for multiple administrations," Kelly said in the memo to White House staff. "The American people deserve a White House staff that meets the highest standards and that has been carefully vetted — especially those who work closely with the president or handle sensitive national security information. We should — and in the future, must — do better."

Kelly said he has directed the following actions:

  • The development and implementation of written protocols about the review of security files, and to work alongside the FBI to create best practices.
  • To "formalize" the delivery and alert process between the White House and the FBI. Kelly also calls for the FBI to verbally brief the White House counsel as files are delivered.
  • Have a goal of receiving a briefing about any "significant derogatory information about senior staff" within 48 hours of discovering it. 
  • For any future approved interim clearances, only grant a temporary clearance for 180 days, with an option to extend that 90 days, absent any "derogatory information."
  • To, one week from Friday, discontinue all top secret interim clearances for anyone whose investigation or adjudication process has been underway since June or earlier. 
  • Limit access to some highly classified information for those with interim clearance status, without his explicit approval.
  • Status reports on every pending background investigation or adjudication at least once a month. 

Kelly also announced he is creating a working group to study the clearance process, both for the White House and across the executive branch. 

Kelly has drawn criticism for his response to the Porter situation. Kelly initially issued a statement praising Porter's integrity, and what Kelly knew, and when, became a daily question the White House had to answer. 

The Porter saga has also raised serious questions about how the White House handles security clearances.

But the president's righthand man said he has already put some reforms in motion. Kelly said new hires must now complete an SF-86 form — the general form used for security clearance applications — and a "suitability questionnaire," and the White House's Personnel Security office must determine whether someone is suitable for the role before that person is on-board and granted access to the White House grounds. 

Kelly also said he has already ended the granting of new interim security clearances, absent any "extraordinary circumstances" with his "explicit approval." Kelly said his office, the chief of staff's office, must also approve of all new security clearance requests. 

"Over the past week, I have convened a number of after-action meetings with you and others overseeing the clearance and suitability review processes," Kelly wrote. "We discussed that actions likely led to the recent situation, how the processes were working up until this week, and the shortcomings within these processes. We also met with senior FBI leadership this week regarding their process and our process in general. They have offered to assist us with reviewing and improving our protocols, and we have accepted their assistance."

  • Kathryn Watson

    Kathryn Watson is a politics reporter for CBS News Digital.