Can Jared Kushner navigate Middle East peace without top secret clearance?

Jared Kushner, left, at a U.N. conference in New York with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and his fellow Middle East peace negotiator Jason Greenblatt, Feb. 20, 2018. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

By Ron Kampeas

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Jared Kushner has had better weeks.

Kushner, who along with being the son-in-law of President Donald Trump carries the titles of assistant to the president, senior adviser to the president and director of the Office of American Innovation, had his security clearance downgraded. John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, made good on a promise to remove interim top-secret clearance from staffers who have yet to be cleared by the FBI.

What prompted the delay in clearing Kushner has not been disclosed, although the Kushner family real estate business is known to be in debt and have financial entanglements overseas. Perhaps not coincidentally, when news of the downgrade broke Tuesday, the Washington Post quoted U.S. officials as saying that officials in four nations — the United Arab Emirates, China, Mexico and Israel — have said that they see Kushner as “manipulable” through his business interests and inexperience in foreign affairs.

What does this mean for the proposal to revive Israeli-Palestinian talks that Kushner and his team are said to be releasing “soon”?

We talked to four former U.S. officials — all had top-level clearance when they served in the executive branch — to get their take.

Clearance, shmearance, he’s got Donald’s ear

“Jared Kushner still has access to the most important piece of classified info in this biz, his father-in-law,” said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East negotiator under Republican and Democratic presidents.

Miller said that Kushner’s access to the decider was probably enough to overcome any hindrance imposed by a lack of access to critical intelligence.

Daniel Shapiro, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Barack Obama and a one-time senior member of the national security team who dealt with Israel, agreed.

“If you’re someone who’s close to the president,” Shapiro said, “it comes with its own weight.”

We’ve only just begun

Right now, the team aiming to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks is preparing a proposal, not a plan — and that doesn’t require much in the way of intelligence briefings.

“Kushner can go ahead and put his ‘ultimate deal’ on the table without having to consult a single piece of information,” Miller said, using the sobriquet that Trump has given the proposal.

(Stephen Colbert joked this week about Kushner’s downgrade and the embryonic nature of the proposal. “How will he fix the Middle East now?” the late-night host asked. “He was so close to starting.”)

The credibility factor

Miller said the real damage to Kushner is to his reputation.

“There’s a prestige factor, a credibility factor,” he said.

Intercepts, phone calls between foreign officials and sensitive human intelligence gathered from agents in the field are classified top secret; Kushner is not privy to them.

“They now know Kushner will not be reading any material related to them,” Miller said, which broadens the interlocutors’ ability to prevaricate.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, a top Middle East policy official at the State Department in Obama’s first term, said just the fact that anyone involved in a negotiation does not know what you know can be helpful.

“If that’s available with regards to these actors, that’s very helpful information when you’re working the issues,” she said.

Shapiro said Kushner’s lack of clearance could sideline him even among the team he leads.

“It’s a significant burden to having a functioning role in a team,” he said. “There are certain types of conversation, certain documents you don’t have access to.”

What good is a secret if you can’t share it?

Part of the utility of possessing intelligence is the ability to share it and thus leverage or entice the other side into a concession. The United States and Israel regularly share what they know. The United States and the Palestinians do not.

“Anything we talk about with the Palestinians is not top secret,” said Ilan Goldenberg of the Center for a New American Security, who was part of the small team behind former Secretary of State John Kerry’s failed attempt in Obama’s second term to broker a deal.

Nevertheless, said Goldenberg, Kushner could work around that.

“There’s intelligence you’re not privy to, but most of it is going back and forth between Israel and the Palestinians, and you don’t need it,” he said.

Whaddya know?

Miller said that top-level clearance gives U.S. officials a  familiarity with the region, even if it is not directly related to the Israeli-Palestinian talks, that all sides value. He recalled that when he participated in talks in the 1990s, the Israelis would raise concerns about other actors in the region and expected American officials to join in the conversation.

“You have to know what they know,” he said. “In order to be credible and not vulnerable to perception of naivete, you have to immerse yourself in intelligence. A lot of it relates to what the Israeli view of Syria is, the situation in Lebanon.”

Omniscience is overrated … 

Wittes said negotiators ultimately must decide on gambits absent the fullest information, however high their clearance — so Kushner’s disadvantage is relative, not absolute.

“Is it essential?” she said. “No. Policymaking is always decision-making under conditions of imperfect information.”

… except when it isn’t

However, should Kushner’s proposal take off and the parties embrace it, the sides will get down to brass tacks — and that’s when the higher classified information could come in handy, Miller said.

“The problems come with discussing Israeli-Palestinian security arrangements, with collaboration between the Palestinians and the CIA,” he said.

It’s all theoretical, anyway.

Why talk about what happens when the sides get down to brass tacks when the likelihood is that it will not happen, Miller said.

“The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is so fraught, so troubled, in the deep suspicions dividing Netanyahu and Abbas, and on the substance, that Kushner could have every access to information in the Middle East, including intercepts between leaders, and it wouldn’t make a difference,” he said.

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