A White House National Security Council analyst who was sidelined from the job after the Pentagon suspended his security clearance is blaming anti-Trump bureaucrats for the action.
Adam Lovinger, who was detailed to the White House in January after serving for 12 years as a strategic affairs analyst in the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment (ONA), says bureaucrats retaliated against him for his conservative foreign policy views.
Lovinger told the Washington Free Beacon that the accusations leading to his security-clearance suspension are "both puzzling and baseless" and he "just wants to get back to work."
"I have the utmost respect for the protection of sensitive information," he said.
NSC spokeswoman Victoria Coates said the White House does not comment on either personnel matters or ongoing investigations. She referred the question to the Pentagon, which did not return a request for comment.
Lovinger’s security clearance was suspended May 1 and first reported by the Free Beacon.
The Pentagon memo suspending his clearance said Kevin Sweeney, Defense Secretary James Mattis' chief of staff, had delegated the decision to Barbara Westgate, the director of the Pentagon's Washington Headquarters Services, a DoD office that handles administrative functions.
"I have concerns regarding your judgment, trustworthiness, and reliability while carrying out your official duties, specifically relating to your personal conduct, misuse of Information Technology systems, outside activities and your improper handling of and safeguarding of protected information," the memo from Westgate stated.
Critics say Flynn ties at heart of Lovinger targeting
Lovinger was picked for the NSC post by then-National Security Adviser Michael T. Flynn. Critics of the move say Lovinger was targeted at least in part because of his conservative views and ties to Flynn, a mentor who shares his views on Islamic extremists, China, and Iran, including opposition to the nuclear deal forged during the Obama administration.
President Trump forced Flynn out in February after top-secret communication intercepts leaked to the press showed that he had discussed newly imposed sanctions against Russia with Moscow’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, in December. More recently, Flynn has come under fire for his failure to disclose a $500,000 payment to lobby on behalf of Turkey before he joined the White House.
Lovinger is the second Trump national security adviser known to have his high-level security clearance revoked or denied. Critics in the intelligence community regard this as part of a systematic effort by opponents to prevent conservatives from joining the White House community and influencing Trump's foreign-policy agenda.
Robin Townley, another Flynn ally, had his security clearance denied in February and several other administration officials are said to have experienced similar security-related denials or suspensions.
Positive performance reviews
Sean Bigley, Lovinger's attorney, says the actions against his client contradict positive performance evaluations from ONA leadership, two of which the Free Beacon reviewed.
Lovinger received the highest ratings—"E" for exceeded expectations—and received a $450 performance bonus in the most recent biannual performance evaluation, which covered the first half of 2016. He received the same rating in his evaluation covering the second half of 2015.
Mattis chief of staff signs off on NSC removal
The Defense Department notified Lovinger via letter on May 1 that his Top Secret, Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS/SCI) clearance had been suspended and he had to return to the Pentagon. White House security officials escorted him from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in the White House complex the same day he received the letter, his attorney said.
Bigley said Lovinger, who holds a JD and serves as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University's schools of public policy and business, is now performing low-level clerical duties. The Pentagon has never informed him of the exact accusations against him.
Instead, Pentagon officials gave Bigley a broadly worded nonclassified "incident history" that said two inquiries were conducted from January 12 to March 9 concluded Lovinger had engaged in misconduct involving but "not limited to" the "mishandling of classified info, disclosure of sensitive information to persons with no need to know, sending 'For Official Use Only' reports to his personal email and violation of his non-disclosure agreement."
Lovinger admits one mistake regarding sensitive material
Lovinger acknowledges making one mistake during his tenure at the Pentagon involving sensitive material for which he was issued an admonishment, one of the lowest-level punishments for such a violation.
In mid-September last year, while preparing for official travel to Hawaii, Lovinger says he left the ONA with a stack of papers he intended to read over the course of his trip. Within the stack of papers was a draft report by a historian and adviser to the defense secretary. The document's footer was marked "classification pending." He says the document in question may have been placed within a stack of documents of what he believed were unclassified academic research papers because he thumbed through the heads of the documents and saw no classified headers as is customary for such material.
A member of the military seated next to Lovinger on the plane observed him reading the document, then saw him notice the "classification pending" footer and attempt to secure the document. After the flight was over, the military member notified his superior who informed Lovinger's boss, James Baker, one day later. That day, September 16, Baker confronted Lovinger regarding the allegation and Lovinger acknowledged the error and showed him the document.
A Department of Defense preliminary inquiry found that Lovinger "improperly, but unknowingly" took a sensitive document out of a secure space and reviewed it in a public location, according to Bigley. The inquiry confirmed Lovinger's account that the document has no security markings on the header but contained "classification pending" footers after the eleventh page.
The inquiry found that the document in question "to the extent it contains any actual classified information is extremely limited and very general in nature," the attorney said.
Bigley, who specializes in security-clearance matters, said usually someone would not face a clearance suspension for "this type of singular, inadvertent incident."
According to Bigley, the dual investigations began only after Flynn's office called ONA Director Baker to request his detail to the NSC.
The Pentagon, Bigley said, has so far refused to accept a settlement offer that would reinstate Lovinger’s clearance and allow him to go back to work.
ONA Turf Battle
Officials familiar with Lovinger's case say his clearance suspension also was retribution for an escalating turf battle with Baker over his direction of the ONA and whether it should remain solely at the Pentagon or have a component at the White House. The ONA originally was housed at the White House when it was created during the Nixon administration.
Such a move is controversial because many conservative members in Congress, as well as defense officials on both sides of the aisle, argued during the Obama administration that the NSC had become too large and unwieldy and often micromanaged Pentagon affairs.
But the ONA in its current role also has faced criticism in recent years during Baker’s Obama administration tenure for failing to produce reports on threats from top U.S. adversaries such as Islamic extremists, China and Iran. Instead the office has used private contractors including Jacqueline New Myer-Deal, a friend of Chelsea Clinton, to produce reports on topics supporting President Obama's agenda.
Lovinger, senior director for strategic assessments at the NSC, penned a series of memos harshly criticizing Baker's leadership, including one dated March 3 arguing in favor of moving the ONA from the Pentagon to the NSC. The memo was widely circulated among NSC and White House officials and current National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, as well as Baker, likely read it.
"The office failed to address what in fact became the major national security challenge: The strategic competition with Islamist terrorists and their supporters, irregular warfare and the rise of a strong and aggressive China," Lovinger wrote in the memo.
In fact, since 2010, ONA has "refused repeatedly to conduct any net assessments to inform the long-term strategic competition with Islamist terrorist networks, the Islamic Republic of Iran, North Korea, Russia or even China."
Trump supporters infuriated, defense experts puzzled
The suspension of Lovinger's security clearance and removal from the NSC has infuriated Trump supporters across Washington.
"The purging of pro-Trump national security personnel like Adam Lovinger by Obama hold-overs is unconscionable," Richard Manning, the president of Americans for Limited Government, a conservative nonprofit, told the Free Beacon. "Their actions represent an erasure of the election results in November and show the depths to which Obama’s team will stoop in order to maintain power."
Observers unfamiliar with the complex details of the case say it has them scratching their heads and wondering if anti-Flynn forces in the administration and Obama officials who retained their government jobs are trying to neutralize those with Flynn connections.
"It's a reasonable question to ask," said John Pike at Global Security, a nonpartisan think tank. "You could easily imagine it was the case because Flynn was swimming against the tide when he was over at the Defense Intelligence Agency, and that's why they fired him because he was telling them things they didn't want to hear."
Pike said news that Trump administration appointees are having trouble with their security clearances is "somewhere between strange to mystifying."
"That they've had different types of problems with it—I don't recall anything like that with previous transitions and I've had a ringside seat for several of them."
There is at least one high-profile instance of an Obama official, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, who had his security clearance denied by the FBI in 2008 when the administration was moving into the White House, the Free Beacon reported in January.
It would be inappropriate to target an individual solely for expressing ideological differences on foreign policy, defense experts said.
"Every boss should encourage analytical competition. Without it, decision-makers don't get what they need," said Michael Pregent, an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute.
Still, Pregent says it is common practice in the U.S. intelligence community to sideline someone by targeting their clearance so they are unable to work.
"If the IC wants to get you for something, they can find a technicality and get you for something. And that's why you have to get them back," Pregent said.