WASHINGTON — In the wake of abuse-of-power accusations over President Donald Trump's handling of the nation's secrets, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee has joined with a key Republican in seeking to impose rules on how the president grants and revokes security clearances.
The proposed Integrity in Security Clearance Determinations Act would seek to ensure that the security clearance process is fair, objective, transparent, and accountable by requiring decisions on clearances to be based on published criteria, according to a bill description obtained by NBC News.
The bill, expected to be introduced Thursday by Sen. Mark Warner, D.-Va., and Republican committee member Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, would bar the executive branch from revoking security clearances for purposes of political retaliation or based on expressions of political opinions or personal views. It also would prohibit agencies from using security clearances to punish whistleblowers or discriminate on the basis of sex, gender, religion, age, handicap, or national origin.
President Trump in August said he revoked the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan, an NBC News contributor who was a career CIA officer before joining the Obama administration. Brennan is a frequent critic of Trump.
The New York Times and Washington Post have reported in recent weeks that Trump ordered that a Top Secret clearance be granted to his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, despite flags in his FBI and CIA background checks. NBC News first reported that career White House security specialists had been overruled in the Kushner matter.
That was one of about 30 occasions during the early days of the Trump administration during which career officials were overruled and security clearances were granted to White House officials despite concerns, sources familiar with the process told NBC News.
A person directly familiar with the matter has confirmed to NBC News a CNN report that Trump also intervened in the case of his daughter, Ivanka Trump, who faced hurdles related to concerns about her husband's foreign business ties, among other issues.
Ivanka Trump has denied that her father intervened and she has declined to comment. An attorney for Jared Kushner did not have immediate comment.
"Americans should be able to have confidence that the security clearance process is being used only to protect our nation's greatest secrets," said Sen. Warner. "Our bipartisan bill will make clear that security clearances are not to be used as a tool to punish political opponents or reward family members."
Sen. Collins, the Republican co-sponsor, added that "the security clearance system is critical to protecting our country from harm."
"This bipartisan bill," said Sen. Collins, "would make the current system more fair and transparent by ensuring that decisions to grant, deny, or revoke clearances are based solely on published adjudicative guidelines."
Security clearances granting government employees access to classified information long have been considered an executive branch function. When the government revokes a clearance, employees usually have no recourse in the courts.
The bill would codify in statute the right of government employees to appeal decisions to deny or revoke a security clearance, and would require the government to publicly publish the results of such appeals — something its backers say would provide transparency and accountability to an otherwise opaque process.
The draft bill description says the legislation was developed with input from government officials and private experts.
Even leaving aside Trump's behavior regarding clearances, the clearance process has long been criticized as arbitrary and occasionally unjust.
The bill's backers have compiled a series of narrative examples describing anonymous security clearance holders they believe have been treated unfairly, in some cases because they were refused access to information that would have helped them fight a clearance denial.
"Reform of the clearance process is absolutely needed," said Mark Zaid, a lawyer who represents employees in security clearance decisions. It has been demonstrated time and again that the executive branch has not risen to the task. Some of the agencies, especially in the intelligence agencies, feel they operate with impunity."