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McMaster Becomes Latest Target of White House Infighting

Fight will be test of whether new Chief of Staff Kelly can pacify internal strife

White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster
White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster / Getty Images
• August 4, 2017 4:07 pm

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The disclosure that White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster sought to preserve former Obama administration adviser Susan Rice's top secret clearance has provided fresh grist for internal foes of McMaster’s to push for the general’s ouster from the Trump administration, according to multiple administration insiders who view the situation as the latest front in a long brewing civil war between divided factions inside the White House.

Documents disclosed Thursday by the news organization Circa show that more than a month after Rice was identified as unmasking classified information about Trump and his associates—damaging information that was later leaked to the press—McMaster wrote to Rice, telling her that he would ensure she retained her top secret security clearances.

This enabled Rice to continue accessing classified information from any secure site across the nation, according to multiple sources, though it remains unclear if Rice has availed herself of that access.

McMaster’s critics allege the general went behind the president’s back to assist the former Obama official in a charge that may further inflame a relationship between Trump and his national security adviser that is already perceived as strained.

The disclosure of McMaster's letter to Rice, which was sent to her home at the end of April, is said to have infuriated some factions in the West Wing who already view the current national security adviser as a source of conflict and instability.

The situation is just the latest source of tension in a long brewing battle between factions in the White House seeing to wrest control from one another. The fresh round of infighting threatens to undermine the new Chief of Staff John Kelly and raises questions about whether the former Marine general and secretary of homeland security can bring order and stability to a West Wing swamped with infighting.

The Washington Free Beacon first reported early Thursday that McMaster is engaged in an effort to purge from the White House National Security Council several longtime Trump loyalists who supporters claim had been guilty only of battling Obama-era holdovers in the government.

"It's wildly patronizing that yet again General McMaster not just in the foreign policy arena, but also in the national security and political arena, is undermining and actually causing harm to the president," one senior West Wing source told the Free Beacon. "This is unbelievable."

"Basically, because the White House is maintaining her clearance now, per General McMaster's order, she has carte blanche access around the U.S., anywhere classified information is stored," the administration official said.

However, multiple sources tell the Free Beacon it is not unusual for a former senior official from any administration to receive such permissions.

McMaster promised in his letter that the Trump NSC would "continue to work with [Rice] to ensure the appropriate security clearance documentation remains on file to allow you access to classified information."

"I hereby waive the requirement that you must have a ‘need-to-know' to access any classified information contained in items you ‘originated, reviewed, signed or received while serving,' as national security adviser," McMaster wrote to Rice, according to Circa.

The blanket permission granted by McMaster has prompted concerns from some Trump allies that Rice could continue to gather classified information and leak it to the press, though there is no evidence she has done so at this point.

Additionally, Trump administration officials on the Nationals Security Council officially reject these claims, telling the Free Beacon that what McMaster did is normal and consistent with the way any administration would treat former senior officials.

"It is common practice for senior national security officials to have their clearance maintained in the event sitting officials need to discuss continuity operations with them," one NSC official told the Free Beacon.

Rice would need such clearance in order to brief current administration officials and inform them about sensitive operations that were began by the former administration, according to multiple insiders.

One senior NSC official in both the George Bush and George W. Bush administrations told the Free Beacon that top officials kept their security clearances after Barack Obama took office in July 2009.

"The Obama administration took no action to have them revoked," said the source. "Similarly, we let the Clinton people keep theirs in January 2001 when they left. This is how it always works, partly because people from the previous administration know things about the previous eight years and may need to be consulted."

"Of course a clearance can and should be revoked when misconduct is shown, but only when it has been shown—not just because people don't like each other or are in different parties," the source said.

Sean Bigley, a veteran attorney specializing in national security clearance cases, told the Free Beacon that while it is "fairly normal" for former Cabinet-level officials to keep their security clearance, the scandal surrounding Rice raises questions about her continued access to classified information.

"It is fairly normal practice that former Cabinet-level officials are allowed to keep their security clearance. This is not only a professional courtesy, but also a practice borne of pragmatism – namely, continuity of government," Bigley said. "There are many classified programs that transcend a change in Administration; current senior officials sometimes need to discuss these issues with former officials."

However, "with all the smoke currently surrounding Rice and the'"unmasking'" scandal, I am hard-pressed to understand how granting her continued access to classified information is, at this time, consistent with the interest of national security," he said. "For the average Joe with a security clearance, any question about the individual's fitness for clearance is resolved in favor of national security—an incredibly high standard. Ms. Rice still has a lot of questions to answer before meeting her burden of proof."

Some Trump officials remain concerned given Rice’s role in unmasking efforts.

Rice is one of several senior Obama administration officials believed to have unmasked raw intelligence community information in order to obtain the names of Trump officials and confidantes named in classified reports. This information was later leaked to the press in what many believe was a coordinated effort by the former administration to handicap Trump's White House.

McMaster sent the letter to Rice before Congress formally subpoenaed her regarding the unmasking effort.

The New York Times reported several months ago that the Obama administration had created a plan to gradually leak damaging information about the Trump administration.

"This is particularly concerning given the information, as reported by the New York Times, of Obama administration plans to sprinkle information around and provide gradual leaks against President Trump," according to the senior West Wing official.

The Free Beacon disclosed on Wednesday that Former United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power is also suspected of playing a role in the unmaksing effort. It is believed Power made "hundreds" of unmaksing requests, a move described as highly suspicious for someone in her post.

One administration insider in close contact with the White House told the Free Beacon that Trump is likely to start paying increased attention to McMaster's behavior.

"McMaster supporters inside the administration keep saying that he's doing the best he can in a tough situation and that if you look at every decision he makes in isolation they all have different excuses," the source said. "But eventually the president is going to realize that everything he does points in only one direction: Protecting the Obama administration's legacy and protecting Obama administration officials from what the American people voted for when they elected Trump."

Another veteran national security hand who is in regular contact with the White House told the Free Beacon that Trump insiders view McMaster as attempting to seize too much power.

"There's a real feeling in the White House that McMaster has overplayed his hand," the source said. "You think people don't notice who he's firing and that they're all people loyal, especially, to the president and the agenda he articulated during the campaign? People notice, and it's created a tense situation."

"So while he's going after conservatives who helped him through the campaign, McMaster extends Susan Rice courtesies with her security clearance," the source added. "These are people who used their access to the nation's most potent surveillance to harass, leak, and investigate the president, his family, and staff. This has got to be the last straw. I don't see how it's sustainable.

Susan Crabtree contributed to this report.

Published under: H.R. McMaster