The White House has admitted that no other vetting was needed for former national security adviser Michael Flynn beyond the background check conducted by the Obama administration, shifting responsibility for the ongoing scandal to the previous president.
Flynn filled out the government’s Standard Form 86 (SF-86) to renew his security clearance in January 2016, a month after he gave a speech in Moscow at an international conference hosted by RT, even though he was no longer a government employee. Flynn was able to maintain his active clearance because he was the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).
The Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General (IG) has opened an investigation to determine whether Flynn failed to obtain approval prior to receiving payment from a foreign government, Democrats on the House Oversight Committee announced Thursday.
During the daily White House press briefing, press secretary Sean Spicer said the Trump administration welcomes the investigation. When he was asked if the White House was “satisfied” with the transition team’s vetting of the retired lieutenant general, he noted the previous administration approved Flynn’s security clearance.
“General Flynn was a career military officer who maintained a high-level security clearance throughout his career in the military. His clearance was last reissued by the Obama administration in 2016 with full knowledge of his activities that occurred in 2015,” Spicer said.
I guess my only point is to explain how the process works and who adjudicated that,” he added when asked to clarify.
Spicer also noted, as he had on Wednesday, that it is up to individuals to update their information between clearance reviews. It wasn’t necessary for the Trump transition team or the White House to conduct any further vetting, he implied.
“Every government employee who’s eligible for a clearance goes through the same process… We don’t have a unique process,” Spicer said. “Why would you re-run a background check on someone who was the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency that had and did maintain a high level security clearance?”
Incoming administrations are expected to do additional vetting, however. The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, a conservative blogger, described Spicer’s response as the perfect storm of “the administration’s scandals, secrecy, foreign ties and ineptitude seem[ing] to all come together.” Jason Easley of the left-leaning Politicususa wrote that Spicer “did indirectly admit… that the White House was incredibly lazy and the work on the transition was unprofessional and shoddy.”
Both Spicer and Flynn’s attorney have said that the Pentagon knew of Flynn’s visit to Russia. The “DIA’s letter actually confirms” that the DOD “was fully aware of the trip,” lawyer Robert Kelner said in a statement.
Pentagon records showed that the DIA and the US Defense Attache Office in Moscow emailed back and forth in December 2015 “to ensure embassy awareness” of Flynn’s trip to Russia for the RT event. There were also various internal email exchanges at the end of November 2015 “regarding actual and potential interaction” with Flynn. He was in contact with the DIA’s Office of Security “in August and September 2016 for the purpose of updating his foreign travel records.”
Being aware of the trip and approving the trip are not the same thing, however. In October 2014, shortly after Flynn was forced out as DIA director, he was explicitly counseled in a letter from the DIA that he was bound by the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which “prohibits receipt of consulting fees, gifts, travel expenses, honoraria, or salary by all retired military personnel, officer and enlisted, regular and reserve, from a foreign government unless congressional consent is first obtained” from the secretaries of defense and state.
Beyond the stated awareness of Flynn’s trip to Russia, such permission was not outlined in an IG letter to the House Oversight Committee, which is also investigating Flynn. In addition, the “DIA did not locate any records referring to or relating to LTG Flynn’s receipt of money from a foreign source,” the letter said. Flynn received more than half a million dollars in combined payments from Turkey and Russia before becoming the national security adviser, and retroactively registered as a foreign agent in early March.
Flynn was forced to resign in mid-February after he “inadvertently briefed the Vice President-elect and others with incomplete information regarding his phone calls with the Russian Ambassador,” he said in his resignation letter.