Many years ago, when I was being vetted for a top secret security clearance, U.S. Army counterintelligence agents discovered a dangerous flaw in my work history: I’d been fired from my senior-summer job at a shoe store in Hyannis, Massachusetts. The agents raced down to Cape Cod (it was summertime) to interview the owner. “He was no good with women’s shoes,“ Mr. Sugarman told the agents, according to my eventually declassified security file. Case closed. I got my clearance.
Months later I was training to recruit foreigners to spy for the U.S. The core of the course was identifying weaknesses in our targets that could be leveraged and exploited. Among them: serious debt.
I bring this up, of course, because of Trump’s perilous finances as revealed in his tax returns unearthed by the New York Times. It doesn’t take a spymaster to understand that when you owe people serious money, they’ve got a handle on you. When they come asking for a favor, you’re pretty much obliged.
As it turns out, the Defense Department regularly rejects applications for security clearances from people who have a tiny fraction of Trump’s $421 million debt, including to shady foreign lenders with ties to Russia, like Deutsche Bank.
“Last June the Department of Defense denied an application for security clearance for access to classified information because the applicant had ‘delinquent debts totaling about $24,000,’” Steven Aftergood, a longtime security expert, wrote Tuesday on his authoritative Secrecy News blog. “In May, a defense contractor was denied a security clearance based on delinquent debts totaling $87,517,” he continued.
“In fact, excessive personal debt is among the most commonly cited reasons for denying or revoking access to classified information,” he said.
The debt trap was spelled out over two years ago, in a DOD directive, National Security Adjudicative Guidelines for Determining Eligibility for Access to Classified Information, Aftergood reported.
“Failure to live within one's means, satisfy debts, and meet financial obligations may indicate poor self-control, lack of judgment, or unwillingness to abide by rules and regulations" on protection of classified information.”
It hardly needs saying that senior U.S. intelligence veterans are as alarmed about Trump’s debts as our adversaries and their spymasters are overjoyed.
“He’ll need a way out of his debt, and plenty of foreign intelligence services will be more than happy to provide that help to him—for a price,” Frank Figliuzzi, a former FBI head of counterintelligence, wrote for NBC this week.
“Significant debts to foreign lenders (assuredly Russian) means [Trump’s] priorities are doing nothing to offend Putin & thereby trigger an order for the lenders to call in the notes,” Douglas Wise, a career clandestine service officer and former deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, echoed that in a tweet. “@realDonaldTrump is functionally owned by the Russian Federation: a significant threat to the US.”
Douglas Wise @DHWise007Russian lenders. Tax bombshell reveals Trump's image is a sham https://t.co/qZEBvClpru
Given Trump’s well documented propensity for transactional relationships—you help me, I’ll help you—it’s not inconceivable that the cash-strapped president (or former president) on the hooks for hundreds of millions of dollars would sell secrets worth that and more to Putin or anybody else bidding for them.
“Presidents are privy to all manner of the most sensitive secrets a nation possesses,” wrote Figliuzzi, author of The FBI Way: Inside the Bureau's Code of Excellence.
“A president would know precisely how long it would take our military to respond to an incoming missile attack. A president knows whether our CIA has recruited a high-ranking official who reports on a foreign prince or king. A president might be aware that an intelligence agency has successfully planted a microphone inside a dictator’s office. Without betraying top secret information, a president could attempt to gain favor with a foreign power by allowing them to do things that would otherwise be against American interests,” Figliuzzi wrote.
Based on standard espionage tradecraft, Figliuzzi says “our agents would have salivated over the potential presented by a recruitment target who was facing public humiliation and possible personal bankruptcy from crushing debt, criminal exposure and the collapse of his highly cultivated business mogul persona.”
The thing is, Trump’s risky indebtedness has long been public knowledge. The New York Times’ disclosures amount to throwing new gas on a long smoldering fire. As Michael Isikoff, chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News tweeted, “‘who do you owe the $ to?’- appears overblown. His creditors are itemized in his financial disclosure” form.
Paul Begala @PaulBegalaGood morning, @realDonaldTrump! Can't sleep? Who could, knowing you owe $421M to... umm, who DO you owe that money to? Plus, debate night. @ScottJenningsKY & I will have tips for you & @JoeBiden on @NewDay with Alisyn Camerota & @JohnBerman at 6 am. Join us. Won't be too taxing
Which begs the question of why congressional Democrats (forget even Republican defense hawks) didn’t raise a louder ruckus many months, if not years, ago about such a glaring national security threat, instead of waiting Godot-like for the courts to grant them access to his tax records. The tornado klaxons should have been blaring nonstop—and should continue everyday until the end of Trump’s presidency and beyond.
What’s the potential price of letting this go?
Decades ago a middling CIA officer by the name of Aldrich “Rick” Ames was spotted parking a shiny new Jaguar in the lot at Langley. Such an expensive bauble was beyond Ames’s pay grade, a few people noted. He glibly explained it away as largesse from his Colombian wife’s money. Ames also had a notorious drinking problem. Both things were let slide, despite his assignment to a unit responsible for tracking Russian intelligence.
Then the CIA noticed an alarming number of its Russian spies were disappearing. Ames, it turned out, was spying for Moscow. Arrested for espionage in 1994, he has been blamed for the deaths of at least 10 CIA Russian informants, not to mention the theft of thousands of top secret documents that may have saved the Kremlin billons in military programs.
From a security standpoint, Trump makes Ames look like a house mouse.
“Indeed, there’s a reason why the federal government generally won’t give security clearances to those who have significant debt,” University of Texas School of Law professor Steve Vladek told Rolling Stone. “It’s because they’re too much of a risk.
“So, too, apparently, is the President of the United States.”