The super PAC affiliated with Speaker Paul D. Ryan pushed back Wednesday against Virginia Democratic congressional candidate Abigail Spanberger’s accusation that the group obtained an unredacted copy of her federal security clearance application through illegal channels.
Instead, documents reviewed by Roll Call show the conservative opposition research group America Rising — which works with the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC in question — received Spanberger’s government files through a Freedom of Information Act request.
“CLF follows the letter of the law in examining any candidate’s background,” CLF spokeswoman Courtney Alexander said in a statement. “Ms. Spanberger was no different.”
Spanberger, who is challenging Republican Rep. Dave Brat in Virginia’s hotly contested 7th District, delivered a cease and desist letter to CLF on Tuesday, condemning it for “trafficking in potentially illegally obtained documents” when it shared the security clearance application with a reporter from The Associated Press on the condition that there be no attribution or fingerprints tying the information back to the CLF, a common agreement between reporters and sources.
“I am not aware of any legal way that CLF could have this document,” Spanberger, a former CIA officer and U.S. Postal Inspection Service officer, said, referring to an unredacted copy of her SF-86 security clearance form that the AP reporter told her he had gotten from CLF.
CLF’s lawyers issued a response cease-and-desist letter of their own Wednesday afternoon, threatening legal action against Spanberger for “leveling false and irresponsible charges” about how CLF obtained the SF-86.
Democratic, Republican, and nonpartisan groups — as well as media organizations — file FOIA requests for documents on hundreds of political candidates each election cycle. When federal agencies receive such requests, it is their responsibility to determine what documents to send — or not send — to the requesting party.
In Spanberger’s case, documents show, the U.S. Postal Service included an unredacted copy of her SF-86 security clearance form in the package it sent America Rising in response to its request. America Rising then sent the documents to CLF.
“Abigail Spanberger needs to ask the USPS why they disclosed certain information in response to a simple FOIA request,” America Rising CEO Joe Pounder said in a statement.
Spanberger’s legal team has been in touch with the USPS about what information it included its response to America Rising’s FOIA request, campaign spokesman Justin Jones said.
David Partenheimer, a public relations manager for the Postal Service, said that it was “looking into this matter.”
A question of princicple
Spanberger said Wednesday in an interview with Roll Call that “wherever the fault may lie for the inappropriate activity” was less relevant to her.
“For me, this is an issue of principle,” she said. “When you fill out an SF-86, you are putting every single detail about your life down on paper … so that the U.S. government knows everything there is to know about you.”
“So the fact that CLF is now attempting to use a document that they should have never obtained to spin some story that is ludicrous, it’s not only disappointing, but it is so incredibly disingenuous that I really just can’t believe it,” she said.
America Rising’s Pounder said the “real reason Spanberger is so upset is official government documents show a past employer she didn’t want voters to know about.”
On her security clearance application, Spanberger disclosed that she had previously taught AP English Literature at a private Islamic school in Alexandria, Virginia, funded by the royal family of Saudi Arabia. The school earned the nickname “Terror High” after the 2005 class valedictorian later admitted that he had joined al-Qaida and was sentenced to 30 years in prison for plotting to kill President George W. Bush.
Spanberger wrote in her letter to CLF that she has “nothing to hide” in her background and is “proud” of her service to the CIA, where she worked abroad for eight years rooting out international terrorism.
To obtain her federal security clearance at the CIA, she underwent a polygraph test where she answered questions about “every single detail” of her life, she said Wednesday.
“For them to make some sort of nefarious connection to a place where I was a long-term substitute teacher teaching AP English when a woman was out on maternity leave is just ridiculous,” she said.
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How it unfolded
America Rising filed the FOIA request on July 9 with the National Personnel Records Center, asking for access to “certain records contained in the official civilian personnel file of former federal employee Abigail Spanberger,” per documents independently reviewed by Roll Call.
“Specifically, this request seeks records reflecting Ms. Spanberger’s employment dates, annual salaries, title, and position description,” America Rising executive Allan Blutstein wrote in the FOIA request.
America Rising did not request any specific documents from the NPRC. In fact, no one can request specific documents through a FOIA request.
On July 12, three days after America Rising filed its FOIA request, the NPRC informed the group it was kicking its request over to the USPS to dig up Spanberger’s files and comply with the request.
Roughly two and a half weeks later, on July 30, the USPS human resources department shipped “the entire Office Personnel Folder (OPF) for Abigail Spanberger” to America Rising.
That folder included the unredacted copy of Spanberger’s SF-86, the security clearance application she submitted to the USPS for her job there.
Roll Call reviewed the receipt of that package and verified via its tracking number that it was delivered to America Rising on July 31.
CLF then handed the security clearance form with Spanberger’s employment history to the AP reporter, with “no attribution and no fingerprints,” a CLF source confirmed.
When the AP reporter confronted Spanberger at an event earlier this month, The New York Times reported, Spanberger confirmed that it was “100 percent” a form she had filled out.
She then sent the cease-and-desist letter to CLF.
Spanberger wrote in the letter that she was not just concerned for her own private information, but the private information of other congressional candidates who have worked for the federal government and filled out SF-86 forms.
“As it relates to the entire process of [CLF] attempting to weaponize an SF-86, I think is a horrible precedent,” she told Roll Call. “There are people who obtain security clearances who provide very detailed, very detailed personal information,” including medical and family records.
“For those people, watching what’s happening, to know that an SF-86 that they truly don’t want to have made public could be used against them for political purposes is a horrible precedent to set,” she added.
Many Democratic candidates backed Spanberger’s criticism of CLF and echoed her claim, without providing evidence, that it had “presumably” used illegal methods to get its hands on federal documents after the original New York Times report on the Virginia Democrat’s cease-and-desist letter.
“[CLF] isn’t just running attack ads against me, they illegally obtained [Spanberger’s] highly confidential security records,” Katie Hill, a Democrat running in California’s 25th District, tweeted.
CLF has raised and spent millions of dollars on TV and digital ads this cycle painting Democrats all over the country in a negative light.
“When I signed up for this, I knew it would get dirty, but this is dangerous,” Hill wrote. “It can’t be a line we cross.”
Lauren Baer, who won her Democratic primary Tuesday in Florida’s 18th District to challenge GOP Rep. Brian Mast, called CLF’s actions “disgusting,” tweeting that it “illegally obtained & then distributed this National Security Questionnaire from a former CIA officer.”
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Ben Ray Luján wrote in a letter to Democratic candidates that Spanberger’s SF-86 security clearance form was “an official government document that only President Trump’s administration should have in its possession in its unredacted form,” the Times reported.
But he did not accuse CLF of any wrongdoing.
“To be clear, we have no reason to believe that Republican groups have illegally obtained any of your personnel files, nor are we certain how C.L.F. got Ms. Spanberger’s document in the first place,” Luján wrote. “But even the evidence of this isolated incident is deeply troubling.”
Brat, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, won re-election 2016 with 58 percent of the vote. But President Donald Trump carried the seat by just 7 points, a margin several Democratic House candidates have erased in special elections since Trump took office.
Bridget Bowman and Simone Pathé contributed to this report.