Sympathies for Jared
My heart goes out to Donald Trump’s son-in-law and “adviser” Jared Kushner. And the many Trump political appointees ensnared, rejected or deterred by the security clearance and background investigation process.
Why the sympathy? I’m in the middle of a background investigation myself.
With a big difference: I’m not up for any government job. I’m not in a government position or political appointment waiting for my clearance. I left my brief, part-time government gig a year ago.
Yet my background check lurches on, like another season of The Walking Dead.
Is it “Jeff” or “Jeffrey”?
The story: I have an independent executive communications practice. In March 2016, a senior Obama official at one of the government agencies reached out. He needed an experienced writer right away. We met and looked forward to getting started.
Retaining me as a government contractor, however, would have taken months. Instead I was offered a one-year, part-time “expert and consultant appointment,” which was quicker and still allowed me to continue serving my other clients.
I was thrilled and eager to help. I filled out the usual background check paperwork, provided some requested backup information and documents, and answered some questions. All good.
I was sworn in, raising my right hand and swearing to God to support and defend the Constitution and faithfully discharge my duties, etc. Frankly, I was humbled and a little moved by the brief ceremony.
I was given an official badge with my picture to get into the grand, neoclassical federal building as I needed. And a nice shared office space with a view of the White House Ellipse parkland across the street, an adjustable standing/sitting desk, computer, iPhone, email address, passwords, and access to the agency intranet, the official’s calendar and other privileges. Including invites to senior staff meetings, and input on actions and activities.
It was an amazing opportunity. The official was inspiring, his team a delight to work with — smart, energetic, committed, diligent, collaborative. Models of public service. And simply the nicest, most respectful people you’d ever want to call colleagues.
I came in knowing little about the subject matter, but they were happy to help me learn quickly and do my best.
The work was challenging but fascinating and fun. I was encouraged to bring my best thinking, writing and creativity. I’m proud of what my boss and the team accomplished in a short time, and my chance to help.
Sadly, it came to an end. After the November election, with the new president and team taking over in January, my boss, the Obama official, said farewell in December.
The following April, my one-year appointment officially ended. I mailed in my badge and phone. Done.
So imagine my surprise to get a call a month later from a contractor for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, National Background Investigation Bureau.
She wanted to complete my background check.
I called back and explained it must be a snafu, my appointment had expired and I was no longer with the government. She agreed, and called back shortly after to say the file was closed.
A month later, the investigator called again. The file was reopened. The “client” — the security office at the agency I worked for — said it already paid for the background check so it wanted to complete it. I gently pushed back.
Eventually I was advised that if I wanted to serve in government again, I should cooperate. I do, so I did.
Completing the background check has been … interesting.
It began with meeting an investigator for an intense two-hour interview at a local library space. She had a lot of questions. Her goal was to verify or further explore what I had shared in the initial background check form.
I didn’t mind. But I did get tripped up here and there.
For example, the background forms ask whether the applicant uses a nickname or alias. I indicated no.
“But I noticed you sometimes call yourself ‘Jeff’,” she said. “In your form, you said your name is ‘Jeffrey’. Could you tell me about that?”
I didn’t think “Jeff” was a nickname or alias, I replied. Although I always wished I had a cool nickname. Like “Spike.”
She smiled but got serious. When were you first called Jeff? Who’s called you Jeff since then? When? Who calls you Jeff now? Do most people know you as Jeff? Or Jeffrey?
She asked volleys of probing questions about family, friends, schooling, job history and addresses — everywhere I’ve lived and when I moved, why — and financial history. Not to mention any therapy or addictions or counseling and details on all that.
She wanted contact information and permission to interview — by phone or in person — friends, family, significant others, neighbors, clients, college classmates who could verify my graduation, and former colleagues who could confirm my job record and performance.
She was obsessed with any foreign travel, business, clients or contacts. I showed her my current blue passport (visits to Paris and London), previous expired blue passport, and even my expired official brown passport from when I traveled globally as chief speechwriter at the Pentagon 20 years ago. Where, by the way, I had a top security clearance.
The investigator met with and grilled people close to me. She sat on a neighbor’s front porch, and visited another neighbor in his office. She called former employers and clients who congratulated me, thinking this was for a new job.
Months later she called for an hour-long follow-up interview. Months after that — apparently she left the job — another investigator took up my file and called with more questions.
Frankly, I don’t mind any of this.
The tougher the background check, the better for our nation and security.
Like a colonoscopy, it’s worth the incommodious process. And the waiting.
The background check makes it less likely officials are compromised or conflicted in their sworn duty to support and defend the Constitution and faithfully discharge their duties. That they serve us and nobody else.
As the Washington Post noted, “In general, people can be denied a security clearance for a wide variety of reasons. Among the most common: withholding information from a government disclosure form, past criminal convictions, compromising contacts or being the subject of an investigation.”
But you may never find out why you got the thumb’s down. Recently, three Trump senior appointees to the Commerce Department lost their positions because of background check issues. One told the Post, “What’s interesting is that my investigation went on for 13 months. If they found something . . . why didn’t they bring it up before?”
Some advice to new political appointees:
When filling out the forms, it’s best to take your time, be thoughtful and thorough, not forgetful or sloppy, and certainly not evasive.
The worst of course is to lie deliberately or by omission. Whatever the subject, however seemingly petty, it means perhaps you can’t be trusted on anything.
A teen shoplifting thing? A puff of weed? Financial issues? Business deals with foreigners? Stoli with an oligarch? Protective order filed by ex-spouse?
Lay it all bare. If not, you’ll hurt not only yourself but the president and people who trusted and believed in you.
So … how did my background check turn out?
I don’t know. I’m still waiting to hear back.
“Jeff” Denny is a Washington writer