- By Colin KahlColin H. Kahl is an associate professor in the security studies program at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. From 2014 to 2017, he was deputy assistant to President Barack Obama and national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden. From 2009 to 2011, he served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East. In 2011, he was awarded the Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service by Secretary Robert Gates. He lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife and two children. Kahl is a co-editor of Shadow Government.
There has been a lot written lately about Sebastian Gorka. The former national security editor at Breitbart is currently deputy assistant to President Donald Trump and a member of Stephen Bannon’s internal White House “think tank,” the Strategic Initiatives Group (SIG). If you’re not intimately familiar with Gorka’s foreign-policy chops, that’s not unusual – prior to taking his current position, Gorka, who holds a doctorate in political science from Corvinus University in Hungary, was an obscure figure, working on the fringes of the counterterrorism community.
Now he is everywhere, appearing regularly on TV to defend Trump’s ban on travelers and refugees from Muslim-majority countries and elaborate on the president’s murky foreign policy. He is particularly fond of criticizing the Obama administration for not being manly enough to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism.” In a March 1 tweet, aping Trump’s penchant for odd capitalization, Gorka wrote: “After 8 years of obfuscation and disastrous Counterterrorism policies those 3 words [radical Islamic terrorism] are key to victory against Global Jihadism.” In a similar vein, he told Sean Hannity at CPAC on February 22 that “the only way you can win any war … is when you are allowed to talk truthfully about who the enemy is.” But, not to worry, Gorka has assured us, “the alpha males are back” and a “new sheriff is in town, his name is Donald J. Trump.”
When I was a deputy assistant to President Barack Obama and national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, I didn’t have a lot of time for media appearances or keeping up with my Twitter feed (we had a lot of meetings). That doesn’t seem to be a problem for Gorka.
In his myriad media appearances, Gorka has a clear shtick. In interview after interview, the good doctor reflexively calls any implied criticism of Trump’s policies “fallacious,” “fake news,” “absurd,” “churlish,” and “asinine” (this BBC interview is an instant classic). In defending Trump’s foreign-policy agenda, Gorka loves to rail against “unnamed sources” who couldn’t possibly know what really happens inside White House national security meetings because they aren’t in the room, like he is. Asked on the PBS NewsHour, for example, about reports questioning the value of the intelligence gleaned from the recent Yemen raid that resulted in the death of a U.S. Navy SEAL, Gorka dismissed them as “wholly fallacious,” and “I can tell you because I’m inside the building when those decisions are being taken.” (Here is another example, in the context of allegations of improper contacts between the Trump administration and Russian officials.)
On other occasions, Gorka seems to reference his access to classified intelligence on terrorist threat streams to push back against the haters. In a February 5 appearance on Fox News, for example, he criticized James Robart, the federal judge who temporarily blocked the implementation of Trump’s travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations, by saying the Robart “doesn’t have the daily presidential intelligence brief. He has no idea what the threats to America are.”
As Gorka’s profile and presumed role in the Trump administration has increased, so has the criticism. Terrorism experts have questioned Gorka’s credentials, describing his views as overly simplistic, Islamophobic, and ultimately counterproductive. Others have poked fun at Gorka for overcompensating by putting “Ph.D.” in his Twitter bio. (Gorka has shot back: “We’re not going to listen to so-called terrorism experts who were linked in any way to the last eight years of disastrous counterterrorism. We’re going to take a new approach. We have a new president.”)
Personally, as a political scientist myself, I’ve wondered when and why Gorka changed his scholarly views on the utility of the term “radical Islamic terrorism.” He used to believe that framing the terrorist challenge in precisely the way he now regularly expresses is deeply problematic. Consider this from his 2007 doctoral dissertation, which sounds like it could’ve been written by Barack Obama (or, for that matter, by Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, Trump’s new national security advisor): “Unfortunately the adjectives most often used to pin-point the existential threat [of transnational terrorism] so cited are Muslim, Islamic or Islamist terrorism, with Global Jihadism becoming more and more popular as well. All of these descriptions do a great disservice to law-abiding Muslims everywhere and also add an undeserved sense of quasi religious legitimacy to murderous terrorists that have little in common with the teachings of the Koran or Mohammed.” (See footnote 6, page 9 here.)
Needless to say, there is a radical difference (pun intended) between Gorka’s views then and now. (For the record, I tried to ask Gorka about this on Twitter — and his only response was to promptly block me.)
Regardless, I want to highlight a different concern here. You see, it appears Gorka doesn’t have a Top Secret or a Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS/SCI) security clearance. On February 16, the Associated Press noted: “The newly established Strategic Initiatives Group, headed by White House strategist Steve Bannon, includes a unit charged with counterterrorism intelligence, current and former senior officials say. The unit is headed by White House aide and former national security analyst Sebastian Gorka, who doesn’t have appropriate clearance, they said — something the officials expressed concern about given the sensitive mandate of the unit.”
This seemed odd, so I raised the issue on Twitter to see if anyone had updated information. In response, I was told by three separate reporters that they had been unable to confirm that Gorka has a security clearance at all (at any level), although it is possible that he may have an “interim” Secret-level clearance (one level below Top Secret). To date, the White House has been non-responsive to these reporters’ inquiries.
Why does any of this matter?
It matters because if it is true that Gorka lacks a Top Secret clearance, it calls into question the credibility of Gorka’s repeated claims that he has insights personally gleaned from supposedly attending meetings on terrorism or other sensitive national security meetings (you know, the ones the media can’t possibly know the truth about). In my experience, at least, these meetings are almost always convened at the Top Secret or TS/SCI level. It would also mean Gorka doesn’t have access to the government’s Top Secret email network, which is the primary way White House officials and NSC staff share information on current threats and operations.
Similarly, if Gorka does not have a Top Secret clearance, any reference to classified intelligence by Gorka to justify Trump’s policies represents, um, “alternative facts,” since sensitive intelligence on terrorist threats to the U.S. homeland is typically marked at the Top Secret or TS/SCI level. (The same is true of cyber issues, by the way, which is the other area Gorka supposedly works on for the SIG.) Now, perhaps Gorka was never meant to be an actual adviser on these issues, but rather just an appendage to the White House communications and press team. But again, in my experience, the NSC spokesperson and other communicators engaged on national security issues require a TS/SCI clearance so they can sit in on relevant meetings where these issues were discussed.
Of course, it is also possible Gorka has had access to these meetings and this intelligence, as he implies. But if that is the case, and he does not have a Top Secret security clearance, that is a scandal.
So, which is it? Either way, Dr. Gorka and the Trump administration have some serious mansplaining to do.
Photo credit: ALEX WONG/Getty Images