The security clearance process has tied the Trump administration in knots — and that is exactly what the bureaucrats running the White House personnel security office intended, said a lawyer who has been battling the office.
The problem is a small group of career bureaucrats holed up in the Old Executive Office Building who turned security reviews into quicksand to ensnare President Trump’s team, said Sean M. Bigley, a federal security clearance lawyer who represents several senior administration officials caught up in the process.
“The security clearance process is being weaponized by anti-Trump bureaucrats who are using it as a tool to not only thwart the president’s agenda but to prevent him from installing appointees who will execute it,” Mr. Bigley told The Washington Times.
His account of obstruction and stalling tactics bolsters White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly’s criticism of the security office and further illuminates recent incidents involving security clearances that have embarrassed Mr. Trump, including a downgrade of top-secret clearance for senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
The foot-dragging in the security clearance process is prevalent throughout the administration, including at the Defense Department, but the problem is most visible and startling at the White House, said Mr. Bigley.
The completed FBI background checks routinely get snagged by the office, also known as EOP Security, that is manned by fewer than a dozen career officials. The office has a reputation for bureaucratic inefficiency stretching back several administrations, but it now has adopted an adversarial stance toward Mr. Trump.
“There really is a hostility and there seems to be almost an institutional arrogance in lack of willingness to engage,” said Mr. Bigley. “I literally cannot get a phone call returned, and I am representing senior people in the administration who are just asking for basic answers as to why EOP Security is still sitting on their background investigation a year after it has been completed.”
Security clearance problems grabbed headlines in early February when Rob Porter was forced to resign as White House staff secretary after his two ex-wives went public with accusations of spousal abuse.
Mr. Kelly and other White House officials initially defended Mr. Porter’s character. But public outrage, fueled in part by a photograph of ex-wife Colbie Holderness with a black eye, quickly forced the White House to oust Mr. Porter.
Mr. Kelly acknowledged that the White House mishandled the episode.
But he said he wasn’t told of “red flags” on Mr. Porter’s security clearance until the Daily Mail reported the story on Feb. 6.
The nearly yearlong delay occurred in the personnel security office.
Mr. Porter was one of as many as 40 officials at the White House working with interim security clearance after more than a year because the process was mired.
Decisions on security clearance usually take about six months.
When the FBI background check reveals negative information about a White House official, the personnel security office usually would inform the chief of staff and White House counsel about the “suitability” concern.
A White House aide with a “suitability” problem would usually resign.
The FBI delivered the background check to the personnel security office in March 2017.
Security clearance professionals have questioned why the information was not transmitted to Mr. Kelly or White House counsel Donald McGahn.
“The question mark is whether that was communicated to anybody else in the administration,” said Mr. Bigley. “Based on my experience dealing with EOP Security, I think they probably did just sit on this and drop the ball.”
Mr. Kelly targeted the communication breakdown in a memo outlining an overhaul of the security clearance process in the wake of the Porter debacle. He ordered the FBI to hand-deliver background investigation files to the White House counsel, bypassing the personnel security office.
“The FBI official who delivers these files should verbally brief the White House Counsel on any information in those files they deem to be significantly derogatory. The White House Counsel will then deliver the [background investigation] to the Personnel Security Office for adjudication,” Mr. Kelly wrote in the Feb. 16 memo.
The overhaul of the security clearance system, including reining in the number of interim clearances, prompted Mr. Kelly to order the downgrade of Mr. Kushner’s top-secret clearance.
Mr. Kushner still has clearance for access to government secrets although not at the highest level, which would include the president’s daily briefings by intelligence agencies.
• Dave Boyer contributed to this article.