Since President Joe Biden took office last week, many White House national security staffers have been relegated to working from home — cutting dozens of them off from vital classified materials needed to do their jobs and raising security concerns as most work from unsecure laptops and cell phones that can be vulnerable to software breaches.
While some staff have been provided with secure laptops and phones to use from home, the vast majority have not, and are forced to conduct a limited amount of work while being barred from accessing sensitive information.
While these measures appear to be temporary and come as the pandemic continues to rage across the country, there is added risk in National Security Council officials discussing sensitive information at home, in the presence of family or housemates who don’t have a security clearance.
“My home is not that big,” one official told CNN. “Even if I whisper, you can kind of make out what I’m saying.”
Since inauguration day, only about four dozen staffers on the NSC are allowed to work from the Executive Office Building, down slightly from the final days of the Trump administration, where telework was recommended but not strictly enforced, according to emails obtained by CNN. But the staffing numbers are expected to change daily. Among those currently working remotely include new political staffers, who have yet to be onboarded, as well as career staffers held over from the previous administration.
Following Trump’s Covid diagnosis last October, the NSC ordered some of its staff to telework, but the orders were largely optional, and many continued to staff their offices so to have access to classified information, which can only be reviewed in secured rooms, or on secure government phones or laptops.
Under Biden, those Covid restrictions have been tightened to reduce the number of people in the office. NSC staff were informed by email on Friday that the “NSC senior management is assessing our organization and posture to ensure we are COVID-19 compliant… As a result, senior management has identified personnel to report to the [Executive Office of the President] campus for the remainder of the week.”
Some officials have been told that it’s unclear how long the telework orders will last.
A former Obama NSC staffer tells CNN that this moment — right after the Russian hack of US government computers — is the wrong time for telework.
“Anything related to the National Security Council is super sensitive, even the unclassified stuff,” said Brett Bruen, who served on the Obama NSC and is now president of the national security consultancy, Global Situation Room. “Having staff work from home opens up numerous opportunities for foreign intel operatives here in Washington and virtually to try and intercept information.”
The NSC declined to comment on its security protocols.
While this has limited the work NSC staffers are able to do, it’s also greatly restricted access to classified and sensitive information, which the administration hopes will result in fewer leaks, according to administration officials.
For the Biden administration, there is the added benefit of limiting access to sensitive materials, such as the transcript for this week’s call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, until its leadership can assess who among the NSC staff — as well as officials in different agencies — will require that information to carry out their work.
That’s a far cry from the chaotic early days of the Trump administration, when leaks of transcripts and other sensitive information were chronic. During the first few months of Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House, the NSC was in disarray from the start. Under Trump’s first national security adviser Michael Flynn, the NSC utilized far more broad distribution lists to disseminate information, according to former White House officials.
The subsequent disclosures of details of Trump’s conversations with foreign leaders fueled conspiracy theories among some within the administration that “deep state” actors were involved in an effort to derail the Trump presidency.
Excerpts and full transcripts of Trump’s controversial calls with the leaders of Mexico and Australia were leaked to the media, prompting the NSC to “severely cut back” on broad dissemination of records, instead sending them only to those who were directly involved in the issues discussed in the call, according to the people knowledgeable of the situation.
Comprising mostly of “detailees,” or career officials assigned from various departments of government, Trump’s NSC’s staff was at the center of some of his administration’s biggest crises, including members of Congress inappropriately accessing classified information inside the NSC, and testimonies surrounding the phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which ultimately led to Trump’s first impeachment.
Over time, the Trump administration was forced to take extraordinary measures to block access, creating a secret server where it stored some of the former president’s most sensitive — and controversial — conversations, including his discussions with Zelensky.
Now under Biden, access is less of an issue with dozens of staffers working from home. That reduced staffing in both the West Wing and the NSC has given the Biden team the rare opportunity to ensure that every word spoken and every paper that crosses the President’s desk will not be made public.
A White House official told CNN that many of President Biden’s top aides, including Ron Klain, Jen Psaki, Kate Bedingfield, Jeff Zients, Cedric Richmond, Jake Sullivan, and Brian Deese, are working in the West Wing and the White House campus with appropriate Covid precautions in place, including regular testing, universal masking, and other safety measures. Additional aides are working from home and using a variety of tools to stay in touch and carry out their work.
The historic Indian Treaty Room in the Executive Office Building was also converted into a vaccination clinic for West Wing and NSC staff to receive Pfizer’s Covid vaccine, in the hope that more people can soon start coming to work again, according to another email reviewed by CNN.
For now, remote work on critical national security matters comes at a cost, and several administration officials shared their concerns with CNN about security vulnerabilities following one of the worst hacks to US government software in history.
“Something is going to get missed, miscommunication will increase and more mistakes will be made – it’s just not smart for the safety of our country at such a vulnerable time,” Bruen said, adding that teleworking so soon after the Russia-linked hack on government software is “really the wrong moment.”