Jared Kushner's Middle East problem isn't his lack of top secret clearance

Jared Kushner's ...

Posted: Mar 2, 2018 1:59 PM
Updated: Mar 2, 2018 1:59 PM

Jared Kushner's loss of access to classified information above the secret level has set the Washington chattering classes talking about how this will or will not affect his capacity to do his job.

I can't speak to his other duties -- prison reform, innovation czar or his all-purpose envoy role for his father-in-law, President Donald Trump. But having worked in the Arab-Israeli peace process negotiations business for a couple of decades, I can weigh in on whether he will be able to discharge his Middle East envoy duties effectively.

And the bottom line is yes, he can, even though access to highly classified information is important. But important as it may be, it's clearly not sufficient for the task Kushner now faces assuming he keeps his job: a mission impossible that would not be doable if he had access to every sensitive intercept in the world. And here's why.

Kushner and Trump

Kushner may have lost his clearance, but he still has access to a far more important resource -- his father-in-law. There's really no precedent for any previous Middle East envoy having this much influence with the President and access in the White House.

And make no mistake, Israelis and Saudis and even Palestinians (who don't much like Trump after the Jerusalem decision) aren't taking Kushner seriously (assuming they really do now) because of his negotiating skills or deep knowledge of Israeli-Palestinian issues.

They talk to him because they believe that through him they can reach his father-in-law and sway the big boss. As long as Kushner has this connection -- or can maintain the illusion he has it -- he'll be relevant in a way that goes beyond any secret information he might possess. But once this link is broken, his cachet will erode as quickly as a sand castle in the face of the incoming tide. Indeed, part of the reason the loss of the highly classified access is so consequential is that it impedes Kushner's ability to sit in high-level meetings where this kind of information is being discussed.

Why Mideast envoys need highly classified material

On balance, I'd argue that classified information is vastly overrated. Actually, engaging directly with leaders and their officials is far more important so long as you maintain the necessary detachment and perspective.

In 20-plus years of working at the State Department, I can't recall a single piece or series of classified information that was so consequential that it created an opportunity or lost one in Arab-Israeli negotiations.

Intercepts of conversations with leaders can be important before a meeting or in a negotiation. But they are still only pieces of information that need to be assembled -- like a jigsaw puzzle -- to understand a leader's perceptions, the situation on the ground or their motives.

Still for Kushner, in his position, there are at least three downsides not to having access to top secret intelligence or sensitive compartmented information.

First, there's the perception that Kushner has somehow been knocked down a notch or two and has lost influence in the White House. Indeed, far more serious perhaps than the end of his interim top secret clearance is one of the apparent reasons it ended -- The Washington Post said officials from China, Israel, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates have talked privately about "ways they can manipulate Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, by taking advantage of his complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports on the matter."

This almost certainly creates the image and perhaps the reality that he's vulnerable and engaged in all kinds of conflict of interests. And it could put Kushner more fully and frontally on the special counsel's radar screen and impede his ability to function as an envoy.

Second, he will now be denied access to highly classified intercepts and information that may bear directly on the people with whom he's dealing. And at times, this kind of information can be important. Kushner has lost an edge in a world where information is power and what you know about someone that's highly sensitive is both a source of acute vulnerability and advantage.

And finally, it's critical over time that envoys immerse themselves in the details not just of the negotiations, but also in regional events and developments. I can't count the number of times we engaged with leaders and their intelligence chiefs on any number of issues. Envoys need to hold their own in these discussions. They need to know when the people with whom they're dealing are inflating threats or exaggerating motives -- and that requires deep knowledge and constant monitoring of the intelligence.

Since so much of these conversations are driven by intelligence organizations, access to highly classified information can be critical. Knowing things and developing analytical skills create the image and the reality of a foreign policy professional, and they add to the kind of knowledge base that can make an envoy effective. Kushner is now in an unenviable position: He doesn't know what he doesn't know and now cannot even access the information to find out.

Kushner's Middle East challenge

The first time I met Kushner I quipped that I wish my father-in-law had as much confidence in me as he had in him because he's given his son-in-law Israeli-Palestinian peace, which is a challenge beyond almost all others.

The fact is -- politically inconvenient as it may be to admit for some -- the issue isn't Kushner's security clearance or even the US mediator; the reason we don't have a serious negotiation or two-state solution is that neither Israeli nor Palestinian leaders are prepared to make the kinds of choices or take decisions to allow a third party to broker an accord.

Under these circumstances, lack of access to highly classified information won't really matter much. It only contributes to making Kushner's mission impossible that much more improbable.

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