Why former W.H. aide Rob Porter's interim security clearance is "surprising"

Rob Porter's interim security clearance

A former White House homeland security adviser says "it is not possible" that President Trump's chief of staff, John Kelly, or his deputy chief of staff wouldn't have known about former White House staff secretary Rob Porter's security clearance issues.

"There's this career staff in the White House that determines these security clearances. But those career people… they report to political people," said Fran Townsend, CBS News senior national security analyst and former homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush. 

Porter and Kelly walk to board Air Force One with Trump at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (L)  and staff secretary Rob Porter (R) walk to board Air Force One with President Donald Trump en route to New Jersey from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, on August 4, 2017.  JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS

"So in this case, that office is overseen by the deputy chief of staff, Joe Hagin, who sits next to John Kelly, and they would have alerted Joe, the deputy chief of staff, that there were problems in this investigation," Townsend explained. "By the way, when the FBI completed it in July and the White House asked additional questions, the White House would not have gone back to the FBI to ask additional question without clearance from leadership in the White House."

Porter resigned last week amid allegations he abused his ex-wives, which he denied.  

Fran Townsend CBS News

Townsend, who spent 13 years working in the Justice Department, said it isn't clear whether Porter had access to top secrets with his interim security clearance.

"So he would have had an interim secret clearance first. He had worked on Capitol Hill, so he's probably been through the security vetting process before. It's surprising to me, given his prior government experience, that he was still in an interim security clearance position," Townsend said.

She described the staff secretary job as "just moving paper around."

"It's not, for example, the president's daily intelligence brief [which] comes in with the director of the CIA. So the staff secretary is not touching the most sensitive secrets," Townsend said.

A top White House adviser told CBS News the West Wing is "coming apart at the seams" in the fallout from Porter's resignation. FBI Director Christopher Wray testified to Congress Tuesday that Porter's security check was finished months ago, contradicting White House officials who had said the security clearance process was still going on. 

House Oversight Committee Chair Trey Gowdy says his committee has begun an investigation into the discrepancy.

According to Wray, the FBI submitted a partial report last March and finished its background investigation in late July. Wray said the bureau followed up on additional information in November after a request, and then closed Porter's file last month.

The White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said career officials were aware of issues in November, but she insists top advisers weren't notified about the extent of the allegations until last week. Sanders said the White House personnel security office received the FBI's information, but did not make a recommendation to senior staff about his security clearance.

Townsend said a big question that remains is "how many outstanding interim clearances are there now into the second year of the administration?"

"In fairness, I will tell you this administration brought in more people who had never served in government and those take longer. Because typically if you served in government before and you come back in, you just have to update your clearance. And so — but I think we need to know because they do have access to sort of all the foreign policy discussions and the intelligence that's briefed before those discussions," Townsend said.

More than a dozen top officials are working with an interim security clearance, including the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner.