Want Reform? Eliminate the Security Clearance "Double Standard"
Following the recent electoral debacle, I've heard a few Republicans talk about the need to reposition themselves as the "party of reform." Not a bad idea, since the exploits of Bob Ney, Randy Cunningham and Jack Abramoff didn't go over very well with the electorate. Of course, Democratic claims about the "culture of corruption" ring pretty hollow, given the on-going investigations of Congressman William "Cold Cash" Jefferson of Louisiana, and West Virginia Representative Alan Mollohan. Given the gravity of their alleged wrong-doing, I'm guessing that Abramoff, Duke Cunningham and Bob Ney may have some company at Club Fed very, very soon.
But if the GOP is truly interested in reform, there are some small--but needed--steps they can push for right now, beyond the obvious need to clean up relationships between Congressmen and lobbyists. At the top of the list of "other" ethical reforms, I'd suggest ending the double standard on security clearances. As it stands, members of Congress are not subject to the same, rigorous background checks given to members of their staff, intelligence professionals and members of the military that also hold security clearances.
San Diego attorney Alan Edmunds, whose practice includes security clearance cases, notes that Congressmen and Senators are merely asked "not to divulge" the nation's secrets, in exchange for access to classified information. And, more amazingly, our elected leaders retain that access, even when they're under investigation for suspected crimes. According to Edmunds, Duke Cunningham retained his clearance right up until the time he resigned from the House, under an ethical cloud. I'm guessing that Mollohan and Jefferson still have their security clearances. If they were Congressional staffers--or worked for DoD or the intel community--their access to classified information would have been suspended months ago, pending outcome of on-going investigations.
Regrettably, efforts to reform Congressional security clearances probably won't go very far. If Congressmen and Senators were subjected to the same requirements, we might find more than a few would find their clearance requests denied. At the top of that "rejected" list we might find the prospective chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Florida Congressman Alcee Hastings. We've written at length on Hasting's various ethical problems, including his conviction (and impeachment) on bribery charges as a federal judge. For lesser mortals, a bribery conviction is sufficient grounds to deny a security clearance. For a member of the new Congressional majority--and likely committee chair--a felony conviction (later vacated on a technicality) is a mere inconvenience, and no impediment in accessing our most sensitive information.
Oak Leaf at Polipundit has been following the Hastings case, and has great round-ups here and here. As he notes, the real scandal is that Hastings has any access to classified information. He also notes that the Congressional Black Caucus has lined up in support of Hastings, putting Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi in a bind. She owes the Black Caucus a favor, and she can't risk being at odds with such a powerful constituency. That means that Hastings gets the chairmanship, and the GOP gets a casebook example of the need for serious reform--if they choose to use it.