WASHINGTON -- In a departure from previous administrations, the Trump White House allows staffers with only cursory background checks and interim security clearances to access classified information as if they had permanent authorization.
No federal rule or law prevents employees with an interim clearance from seeing or hearing classified information. But previous administrations of both parties were generally more protective of the nation's secrets, according to six people familiar with the conduct, including those who worked in the West Wing during the Barack Obama and George W. Bush presidencies.
"That's the smart thing to do. That's the standard thing to do," said Paul Pillar, former deputy chief of the intelligence community's counterterrorism center who served nearly three decades at the CIA. "What's going on in the White House now ... just throws the whole idea of security clearances in the trash."
The White House -- led by a president and filled with staff who have not served in government before -- has been under fire for a week for allowing White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter to work for more than 12 months on a temporary clearance. He resigned abruptly last week amid the lengthy background check for his permanent clearance after allegations domestic abuse from both of his ex-wives became public.
Nonetheless, White House officials insisted Porter was able to fulfill his duties, particularly managing sensitive and classified information to President Donald Trump, while using an interim clearance because they said he was allowed to access the same classified information as if he had a permanent clearance.
"It's the same process that has been used for decades in previous administrations," White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters this week.
But some former administration officials and attorneys who specialize in national security practices and procedures said supervisors and others who control classified information would often withhold it from those with interim clearances -- as part of what one called an unwritten set of rules -- because they had not successfully passed an extensive background check.
"We are seeing with this administration an incremental and deliberate pushing of boundaries that in the past were limited by institutional customs and norms," said Bradley Moss, a Washington lawyer who specializes in national security and represents people going through the security clearance process. "Many of the personnel actions this administration has taken have been technically legal but more ethically questionable than what has been previously permitted."
Dozens of other White House staffers reportedly have only interim clearances nearly 13 months into Trump's presidency, a sign that investigators have remaining questions, doubts or other conflicts that still require investigating. The list includes Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and top adviser, who has complex finances as New York real estate developer and made mistakes on the required paperwork. He has been interviewed by Robert S. Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
National security experts say background checks can take months -- even a year or more -- but that the number of White House staffers without permanent clearance in this administration is high given that it's customary for individuals hired by a president's to serve as his top aides would be granted the highest priority even as hundreds of thousands of people for administration jobs wait for background checks.