RICHMOND –Democrat Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA officer challenging Rep. Dave Brat (R) in Virginia’s 7th Congressional district, says a conservative super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan illegally obtained sensitive personal information about her from a questionnaire she submitted to the federal government years ago while seeking security clearance.
“I write as a former civil servant and as an American, in shock and in anger, that you have tried to exploit my service to our country by exposing my most personal information in the name of politics,” Democrat Abigail Spanberger, wrote in a letter to the Congressional Leadership Fund, in which she demanded that the group destroy any copies of the form, which included her unredacted Social Security number and medical history.
CLF said it obtained a copy of the questionnaire legally — through a Freedom of Information request submitted by a GOP consultant. It provided a copy of the FOIA request and a reply from the Postal Service saying it was providing her personnel file in response. Spanberger worked as a postal inspector, job that also required security clearance, before joining the CIA.
The release of Spanberger’s full security questionnaire was first reported by The New York Times.
CLF suggested that Spanberger was trying distract from a fact of her work history — that she had once taught English at Islamic Saudi Academy, a Northern Virginia school dubbed “Terror High” because some of its students later joined al Qaeda.
David Partenheimer, a spokesman for the Postal Service, said he was looking into the matter but did not have an immediate response.
Brat’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
He and Spanberger are engaged in an increasingly competitive race in the 7th District, a formerly solid GOP seat which the Cook Political Report has moved into “tossup” territory.
Brat won the seat four years ago after pulling off a shocking upset in the GOP primary, snagging the nomination from then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. But he faces stiff headwinds this year given President Trump’s unpopularity in the largely suburban district as well as the fact that some Cantor supporters remain cool to him, and his past comments that enraged some female constituents.
Spanberger mentions on the campaign trail that she once worked as a substitute teacher at a “private school,” but that hardly seemed like the most intriguing part of the former CIA officer’s biography. She filled in for a teacher was on maternity leave during the 2002-2003 school year, a job she took after she’d gotten a conditional job offer from the CIA and was waiting out the long security-clearance process.
Her first inkling that someone was looking into her teaching stint came in early August, when a campaign staffer happened to get a call from a Republican pollster, Jones said.
“One of the questions was along the lines, ‘Would you or would you not support Spanberger [if ] she worked at an Islamic Saudi school funded by the Royal Family,’” said her spokesman, Justin Jones.
Her first thought was, “Someone has my SF86,” Jones said.
She got confirmation of that on August 16, when an Associated Press reporter approached her and Jones at an event, saying he had received copies of the form from CLF on “background,” meaning the material had been offered on condition that the source not be revealed. The reporter said that AP decided to break the background agreement after its lawyers reviewed the material and concluded that CLF could not have obtained it legally, Jones said.
“This is awkward, but we got an oppo dump from CLF,” Jones recalled the reporter saying. “Our legal team reviewed it and are willing to break [the] background [agreement] because they had no capacity to obtain this legally.”
Jones said the reporter then pulled the SF86 up on his phone and Spanberger saw enough to confirm that it was hers.
“It’s the whole, entire document. It’s the whole shebang,” Jones said. “You’re putting your faith in the government that they’re going to protect this information, so it’s an attack on civil servants. It’s a national security risk to some degree.”
AP spokesman Bryan Baldwin declined to comment on that account.
“As a matter of long-standing policy, The Associated Press does not publicly discuss its newsgathering methods or sourcing,” Baldwin said. “In this instance the AP did not publish a story on this topic.”
In 2002, Spanberger had gotten a conditional job offer with the CIA, contingent on her passing an exhaustive background check. She also sought work as a Postal Inspector and for both jobs, filled out a questionnaire, known as SF-86, as part of that process. She then looked around for other work since it could take years for clearance to come through.
She waited tables and then heard, from a fellow waitress who taught part-time at Islamic Saudi Academy, that there was an opening there for an English teacher while the instructor took maternity leave. Spanberger took the job, working there from 2002 to 2003.
But her work there did not stop her from receiving a security clearance and employment. She updated her SF-86 to note that she had left waitressing for the teaching job, identifying the school by name. She later got a job as a postal inspector, and finally started with the CIA in 2006.
On Tuesday, Spanberger sent a letter to CLF threatening legal action if it did not “destroy every copy … of my unredacted SF86” and agree not to share any information obtained from it.
CLF responded by releasing a copy of a Freedom of Information request that America Rising Corp., a consultant to CLF, submitted to the National Personnel Records Center July 9. The center on July 12 forwarded that request to the Postal Service, which responded July 30 with Spanberger’s “entire personnel folder.” CLF contends the material provided included her SF86 form.
“By attempting to divert attention from the fact that she was employed by a Saudi government-funded high school that produced two students who were accused of preparing for suicide bombings, as well as a valedictorian who was convicted on charges of providing material support to the al Qaeda terrorist network as part of a conspiracy to assassinate then-President George W. Bush, Abigail Spanberger is trying to stifle vital political speech about her qualifications for public office, which is protected under the First Amendment,” CLF wrote in a reply to Spanberger’s campaign.
CLF notes that Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, the school’s 1999 valedictorian, was convicted in 2005 on charges of providing material support to the al Qaeda and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Emily’s List, the political group trying to elect more Democratic women, accused CLF of “weaponizing” Spanberger’s security questionnaire.
“It’s the season for political attacks and Abigail Spanberger knew they were coming. What’s shocking is that Paul Ryan’s super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, would cross ethical lines in using information inappropriately obtained from her security clearance application and weaponizing it as a political attack,” Christina Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the organization said in a statement. “The Republicans are clearly willing to do anything to win, but this shameful act is beyond the pale and every Republican currently benefiting from CLF’s attack ads should have to answer for their actions.”