I don’t believe them. Or rather, I don’t believe that this is some innocent blind spot in the vetting process.

An administration official said special advisers to the president, or czars, are not required to fill out the questionnaire that runs 7 pages and contains 63 questions.

The entire questionnaire, the official said, is reserved for appointees who must win Senate confirmation

Question 61 reads as follows: “Have you had any association with any person, group or business venture that could be used – even unfairly – to impugn or attack your character and qualifications for government service?”…

An administration official said Jones never hid his controversial associations or remarks from the White House.

“It wouldn’t be fair to characterize him as being dishonest or hiding his comments or his positions,” the official said. “It’s just fair to say that he didn’t go through the most rigorous vetting process.”

This reeks of plausible deniability. If they knew, however vaguely, that he was tainted, why wouldn’t they follow up with a thorough vetting via the questionnaire to find out just how tainted he was? Answer: Because they didn’t want to know, and they certainly didn’t want to create any documents that would prove that they did. Copping to incompetence in the background check is less politically damaging than copping to putting a Truther on the payroll with full knowledge of his past, so that’s how they’re going to spin this. Plain and simple, they’ve been playing dumb about this guy since the moment they hired him.

A former Bush lawyer who spoke to Politico isn’t buying it:

During the Bush Administration any White House staffer with policymaking or public responsibilities would have undergone substantial vetting. At a minimum, the potential hire would have been asked the umbrella question “is there anything in your background that — fairly or unfairly — might be used to cause embarrasment to you or the President.” In, addition, anyone with a West Wing office had to undergo a national security background investigation based on the SF-86 form in order to get a permanent badge. That form includes very detailed questions about associations with anti-government groups. If Jones was asked either set of questions, the information that led to his resignation should have been disclosed…

Van Jones’ issues would probably have been flagged if he had simply been looking for a date on E-Harmony or Match.Com. Here, there was most likely a major gap in the vetting operation, a deliberate deception by Jones, or a conscious decision by someone senior to short circuit the more rigorous vetting process. The smart money would be on the latter two possibilities. This happened once in the Bush Administration with the vetting of Bernie Kerik, with awful consequences.

Not the first time we’ve heard the “short circuit” theory floated. I said this yesterday but it’s important enough to bear repeating: The White House is flatly admitting here that its czars are specially exempt from the sort of scrutiny that cabinet officers receive. But why? The point of a Senate confirmation hearing is to make sure that power isn’t being wielded by officials whom the public would consider unsuitable or irresponsible; if the White House wants to bypass that process, the least it could do is make some sort of cursory inquiry towards the same end. And yet, by their own admission, they’re not. Which means (a) Obama must feel mighty confident that no third party is going to make that inquiry on its own — and rightly so, and (b) there’s potentially an awful lot of skeletons in an awful lot of closets yet to be revealed. Exit question: Will the Jones scandal spark a round of after-the-fact vetting by White House lawyers to make sure this doesn’t happen again? Or will The One double down on his wager that the media won’t bother asking questions no matter how many alarm bells about his team of czars are going off?

Update: Reader Geoff A. points out that at least one Jones acquaintance was interviewed by the FBI as part of their background check on him. I assume that was aimed at finding out if he had any criminal background, not if he was a Truther nut, but note well:

Jones resigned amid a furor over his signature on a 2004 petition questioning the government’s actions around the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Supporters say the administration surely knew his background when they appointed Jones, the first African American to write a best-selling environmental book, as special adviser for green jobs at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. In fact, agents interviewed at least one of his former supervisors in San Francisco – Eva Paterson – when the FBI vetted his appointment.

For once, his supporters are probably right. And also note this, again via Geoff A. Time magazine, November 18, 2008, just two weeks after the election:

Though over 7,000 jobs are expected to become available in President-elect Barack Obama’s Administration, applying for them is not for the faint of heart — or character. In order to compete for any of the positions, from U.S. coordinator for Afghanistan to staff assistant in the Department of Public Affairs, prospective Obamans need to fill out a grueling seven-page questionnaire created by Obama’s transition team to ensure that all members of the next Administration have had their closets spring-cleaned of any skeletons well in advance.

The questionnaire leaves no stone unturned in its 63-part effort to excavate any personal or professional transgressions in a candidate’s past. Sample indiscretions run the gamut from criminal convictions and tax fraud to text messages or personal diary entries that could be a “possible source of embarrassment” to the President-elect if made public.

This would be the same questionnaire that pointedly wasn’t given to Jones. How come, Barry? Just another false promise of ethics and transparency that quickly fell by the wayside after the inauguration?

Update: Was the FBI check only aimed at criminal history? Omri Ceren e-mails to say he doubts it and points to this passage at the Office of Personnel Management website:

Q. Why are you going to investigate me? I’m only applying for an entry level job and I don’t need a security clearance.

A. The interests of the national security require that all persons privileged to be employed in the departments and agencies of the government shall be reliable, trustworthy, of good conduct and character, and of complete and unswerving loyalty to the United States. This means that the appointment of each civilian employee in any department or agency of the government is subject to investigation. The scope of the investigation will vary, depending on the nature of the position and the degree of harm that an individual in that position could cause.

Jones’s association with STORM should have been a, er, red flag — enough of one, at least, to warrant completing the full seven-page questionnaire. Again, why the free pass?