FBI Director Christopher Wray said Tuesday that the bureau completed its background investigation of former White House staff secretary Rob Porter last year, contradicting the White House’s assertion that the FBI “process” was ongoing.
Wray told lawmakers at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing that the FBI submitted a partial report to the White House in March on Porter, whose position involved access to the nation’s most sensitive secrets, and completed its scrub of the ex-aide’s background in late July.
Wray said the FBI completed a follow-up in November after one was requested and “administratively closed the file” in January. The FBI, he added, received additional information in February and passed that along, too. Wray did not specify the nature of any of the information it received about Porter.
“I’m quite confident that in this particular instance the FBI followed the established protocols,” Wray said.
Porter resigned Feb. 7 following the Daily Mail’s publication of interviews and photographs documenting his abuse of his two ex-wives.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Monday that the clearance process was “handled by our law enforcement and intelligence community” and that it “hadn’t been completed” at the time of Porter’s departure last week.
“Look, this is a process that doesn’t operate within the White House,” Sanders said.
On Tuesday, Sanders changed her position, saying that it was the White House security office, not the FBI or other agencies, that had held up final resolution on Porter’s clearance status.
“The White House personnel security office, staffed by career officials, received information last year in what they considered to be the final background investigation report in November,” Sanders said. “But they had not made a final recommendation for adjudication to the White House because the process was still ongoing when Rob Porter resigned.”
Sanders said “both” she and Wray had been correct in their explanations because the White House’s personnel security office’s investigation had remained open even after the FBI’s had finished.
“We find those statements to be consistent with one another,” she said. “In the view of personnel security office, the FBI’s July report required significant additional investigatory field work before personnel security office could begin to evaluate the information for adjudication.”
It is the White House personnel security office, Sanders said, that is responsible for making a recommendation on a given individual to the administration. She stressed that the office is staffed by “career officials,” not political appointees.
Spokesman Raj Shah told reporters last week that a background investigation into Porter was ongoing until the point that he announced his resignation on Wednesday.
Tuesday’s hearing marked the second time in as many weeks that Wray, who previously served in the George W. Bush administration, has crossed the White House. The FBI issued a statement in January saying it had “grave concerns” about President Donald Trump’s intention to declassify a memo written by House Republicans concerning the agency’s investigation of claims surrounding Russian interference in the 2016 election and contacts with the Trump campaign.
The White House has come under scrutiny after it became clear that Porter, as well as dozens of other officials, had been working without a permanent security clearance. White House officials were aware of at least the broad outlines of the accusations against Porter by two ex-wives before the news became public last week and led to his exit.
People familiar with the process for obtaining clearance said the FBI does not make any final decisions or recommendations and that the White House, specifically the counsel’s office and the security office, would have been heavily involved in deciding whether to grant Porter clearance.
Bradley Moss, a lawyer who dealt with security clearances for White House staffers during the Obama administration, said it was unusual for the FBI to continue to work on the case after the July report was filed.
“It sounds like [the White House] had at least some sense something was wrong,” Moss said. “The question is who requested it, what did they know and what were they trying to clarify.”
White House officials familiar with events have said that chief of staff John Kelly was aware weeks before the Daily Mail report of issues with Porter’s case. Moss added that White House counsel Don McGahn would also likely have been aware of the process.
An Obama White House lawyer told POLITICO last week that the White House counsel’s office was routinely advised of significant discoveries during FBI background checks for White House officials.
“If someone we were bringing on board had allegations of domestic abuse, we would have heard about it as soon as the FBI heard about it,” the attorney added. “We’re the customer. It’s not some privacy issue….That’s the way the process worked. They would let us know.”
Porter was among multiple West Wing aides who were still working on interim clearances, according to administration officials.
At Tuesday’s hearing, director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said that people with temporary security clearance should get only limited access to sensitive, classified information, calling the process “broken.” Coats did not mention any individuals.
“Sometimes it is necessary to have some type of preliminary clearance in order to fill a slot, but … access has to be limited in terms of the kinds of information they can be in a position to receive or not receive,” Coats said. “It needs to be reformed.”
Louis Nelson and Ayanna Alexander contributed to this report.
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