Saw on Fox this morning that Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) had gotten a response from the FBI on Paul’s query about whether Peter Strzok and Lisa Page still have their Top Secret clearances, and whether they are able to access “FISA” related material or other highly classified data.
This is what the FBI said:
All FBI employees must maintain a Top Secret security clearance. Because of security concerns and law enforcement sensitivities, the FBI does not reveal the specific accesses granted to particular employees. The release of information regarding access to and searches of FBI databases is similarly constrained by law enforcement sensitivities or the classified nature of that information, as well as related FBI security measures.
Paul correctly understands from this that the FBI isn’t going to readily tell him anything.
FBI notifies Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) that Peter Strozk and Lisa Page continue to maintain top-secret security clearances, access to sensitive private information. pic.twitter.com/M2OFqJ6CvA
— Josh Caplan (@joshdcaplan) April 11, 2018
But that’s not because the FBI has a legitimate reason not to. The FBI could have chosen to break down at least one simple point for the senator, and it didn’t. That clarifies that the response letter is deliberately uninformative.
The simple point is that “maintaining a Top Secret security clearance” doesn’t mean an employee always has what’s colloquially called a “read-in” status. It means the employee has to maintain eligibility for a Top Secret clearance, by keeping his or her personal and professional life clean, and ensuring that all background-investigation paperwork is up to date.
These are measurable and meaningful requirements, which you understand if you’ve ever had a Top Secret clearance. It’s not vague boilerplate; it’s a real set of wickets, involving deadlines, interviews, and a thick layer of supervision that employees have to keep themselves on the right side of. The end product, separate and apart from the access you’re given in a particular job, is the clearance you are granted by an authorizing authority.
Maintaining yourself in a pristine eligibility condition, so that the authority doesn’t mark you ineligible, isn’t the same thing as needing a specific level or type of clearance for the job you’re in. It’s not the same things as having access – what you have when you’re in a “read-in” status – to specific types of classified information.
So the FBI’s answer to Senator Paul is a non-answer in every way. The response does NOT mean that Strzok and Page are still “read in” for access to Top Secret information. They may be, depending on what the FBI has them doing right now. But it may be that they have been “read out” while they are the subjects of an IG investigation.
None of what I’ve just said is classified. Conveying information to Senator Paul about the clearance and access level of Strzok and Page would be classified – but that doesn’t mean a U.S. senator can’t be given that information. In fact, such information is conveyed to Capitol Hill all the time, when federal agency personnel go to the Hill for classified discussions (e.g., with committee members and staff).
If highly classified information is to be discussed, the accesses (and implicitly therefore the clearance level) of the agency personnel are verified to the committee staff(s) beforehand.
Paul’s question is not in relation to routine committee business, to be sure. But it’s a legitimate question for oversight purposes. The senator has every right to ask that question, and the FBI ought to certify an answer to him one way or another.
If the Bureau feels like it’s a policy issue to set the precedent, it should discuss that with the right liaison in the Senate and come to an agreement. But Senator Paul has every moral, ethical, separation of powers, and public interest point on his side in this one.
Strzok and Page are under investigation for potentially gross misconduct, and Strzok, in particular, can be reasonably construed to have had access to unmasked information on U.S. persons in his former job in counterintelligence. Paul starts with a legitimate interest in that.
Moreover, information about the level and type of one’s government clearance is not personal information. It belongs to the U.S. government – and so does the information an employee may have access to due to having that clearance. Paul’s question isn’t just about what Strzok and Page have access to. It’s inherently about how the FBI is handling the material they may have access to.
On every count, the FBI owes Congress an oversight response on a question like this. It is Congress’ business how the FBI is conforming to the existing laws and directives on clearances, personnel access, and the handling of classified material. That is especially the case when the classified material a senator has specifically asked about includes unmasked U.S. person identifying information.
It is not legitimate for the FBI to simply stonewall this question. The FBI can decline to expose exactly what content employees may be able to look at; e.g., individual names, and the case information that causes the interest in them. But Senator Paul has every right to know the general answer to the questions he has asked.
If the FBI thinks the answer should remain a secret – i.e., Paul shouldn’t reveal it to the public – that’s legitimate, and Paul should agree to receive the information on that basis.
If it helps the senator, I doubt Strzok and Page continue to have their access. They probably can’t even get into a SCIF at this point, much less sit down at a computer and pull up information. That doesn’t mean they haven’t “maintained their Top Secret clearance,” although it’s possible their clearances too have been suspended while the IG investigation is ongoing. But they’d still be on the hook to maintain their eligibility, at least until the FBI decides administratively what to do with them.