By Tom Lamia
I try to ignore the ignorance, pettiness and mean-spiritedness that increasingly permeate White House actions. This is not because I don’t notice, but because I feel powerless to object. This distressing situation only seems to worsen with time.
Yet a particular incident among the daily outrages does offer hope. It comes from the actions of a woman from Maine whose only axe to grind is in defense of our national security. Her story is remarkable for the outsized courage, tenacity and humility she has shown in stepping forward to protect the country.
News reports and tell-all books regularly disclose bad practices at the top of the federal government, all to no apparent reformative effect. Orders come down from above and are carried out. Even non-political personnel seem to do what is asked without question or complaint.
But now comes Tricia Newbold, a native of Madawaska, Maine, to blow the whistle on egregious failures in the granting of security clearances. Eighteen years ago she went to Washington to start her career at the Personnel Security Office in the White House, which has responsibility for adjudicating White House security clearance decisions. She has served four presidents: Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump. She rose within the professional staff to the top level of adjudicator, making final “yes” or “no” recommendations.
The President, who has the ultimate authority, can overturn a professional staff decision. There is a chain of command leading up from Tricia Newbold’s supervisor through several intermediaries, including the White House Counsel and the President’s Chief of Staff, to the President. Prior to the Trump presidency, it was highly unusual for a president to overturn a recommendation for denial of security clearance.
For more than a year there have been news reports that certain key officials have been denied clearances but continue to serve in high-level positions and receive top secret information. Jared Kushner was at the center of these reports.
This situation was wrapped in mystery until, in late March, Tricia Newbold told the House Oversight and Reform Committee that 25 professional staff recommendations for denials of clearances had been overruled, including those of at least three highly placed individuals: Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump and National Security Council Chair John Bolton. In one or more of these cases, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and White House Counsel Don McGahn disagreed and wrote memos to file noting their objections.
Madawaska, where Tricia Newbold was born and grew up, is on the Canadian border at the northernmost limit of U.S. Route 1. A high school teacher there remembers Tricia, who has a congenital form of dwarfism, as a person of grit with a can-do personality. This teacher was surprised, when she saw Tricia in a Madawaska store after graduation, by Tricia’s height and physique. She had undergone painful bone-lengthening surgery in an effort to gain more independence.
She is still short. Her stature became a problem in her work only after she attracted negative attention for not approving security clearances. First, files she needed were moved to high shelves that she could not reach. Other apparently retaliatory actions were taken. After learning that she would likely disapprove a clearance for a certain high-ranking person, her supervisor would not give her the file and told her to “have nothing to do with it.” Finally, she was suspended without pay for 14 days for what her supervisor said was insubordination.
That is when she sought out Ed Passman, a labor lawyer, who arranged to have her interviewed by the House Oversight Committee staff. She testified to her concern that procedures were not being followed and disqualifying factors were being ignored. As she told the Committee, “I would not be doing a service to myself, my country, or my children if I sat back knowing that the issues that we have could impact national security.”
Before coming forward, she voiced her concerns to numerous White House officials. Finally, she acted on her “last hope” by telling her story. “Serious disqualifying issues, such as foreign influence, conflicts of interest, financial problems, drug use and criminal conduct” were being set aside in order to approve rejected applicants.
Requests to interview Tricia Newbold have been turned aside by her lawyer, who says that she does not want to be interviewed and that for her this is not a political issue—she really cares about protecting our national security and she only wants to go back to work, which she has now done.
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