For decades, the nation has entrusted its most vital secrets to those deemed trustworthy. And earning that trust was no easy feat; a SECRET-level security clearance required a national agency check, an exhaustive examination of your activities, associations and conduct for the past 10 years. For positions demanding a TOP SECRET/SCI clearance, a single scope background investigation is mandated, with a detailed examination of the individuals conduct, travels, relationships and financial dealings.
With more personnel requiring security clearances --and the wider scope of current investigations--the wait for a security clearance has increased dramatically since 9-11. It can now take more than a year to receive a SECRET clearance, and 2-3 years to gain TS/SCI access. Admittance to special access programs (SAR/SAP) requires additional screening, and there's no sign the backlog will ease in the near future.
Having been throught the grinder a few times, we can empathize with those waiting for a clearance to be adjudicated. But it is a necessary, even vital process. After all, you don't want to trust sensitive information to someone with a shady past (or current problems) that could open them up to blackmail, and the potential compromise of classified data.
But if the Pentagon and the Senate Armed Services Committee get their way, the rules may be changing. Our colleague Sharon Weinberger at the Danger Room reports that the Pentagon, with the support of the armed services committee, is pressing for repeal of a provision that currently bars many individuals from obtaining a clearance:
Under the law, members of the military services, employees of the Department of Defense or contractors working for the Pentagon cannot receive a security clearance if they were convicted of a crime in any U.S. court and went to prison for at least one year; if they are unlawful users of illegal substances; if they are considered mentally incompetent or if they were dishonorably discharged or dismissed from the armed forces.
According to the Senate Armed Services Committee report, the Department of Defense requested the provision’s repeal because the mandatory standards “unduly limit the ability of the Department to manage its security clearance program and may create unwarranted hardships for individuals who have rehabilitated themselves as productive and trustworthy citizens.”
The law negatively affects individuals who have committed a qualifying crime but have determined trustworthy by “national adjudicative standards,” according a Pentagon spokesman. Because the statute only applies to the Pentagon, it hinders clearance reciprocity with other federal agencies, he added
The Senate Intelligence Committee is reportedly against the plan, believing that it could lead to serious security problems. Presently, it's unclear as to which side will prevail. If we had to guess, we'd come down on the side of the Pentagon and the appropriators. The military will claim that it can still weed out the "really" bad apples, while granting a second chance to those who have apparently rerehabilitated themselves.
There are several factors behind this effort. A few months back, the Associated Press reported that at least 2,000 troops had been unable to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan, due to security clearance problems. That creates a serious void in units that have to find other personnel to fill their positions. And the problem continues at home station as well; without a clearance, military members are unable to perform critical jobs, reducing them to clerical or "make work" duties. Meanwhile, someone else has to perform their old task which required access to classified data.
Then, there's the issue of where the "next" generation of cleared personnel will come from. As we reported three weeks ago, the military now faces a pending recruiting crisis that has nothing to do with the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. According to the Commander of the Navy Reserve, 72% of young Americans between ages 17 and 24--the prime demographic for military recruiters--can't meet basic requirements for military service, due to illegal drug use, criminal behavior, or the treatment of certain conditions with strong psychiatric medications.
That means the military must find most of its new recruits from the 28% who do qualify. But not all of those young men and women have a sterling background, either. Some have past run-ins with the law for minor felonies or drug offenses. In years past, that would be enough to deny a security clearance, but as the recruiting battle gets tougher, the Pentagon wants more flexibility in granting clearances to uniformed personnel, DoD civilians and military contractors.
From our perspective, we see merit on both sides of the argument. The current adjudicative process really isn't designed to grant "second chances," and there are probably those who have been rehabilitated, and could be trusted with sensitive information. Additionally, we're unconvinced that present screening and adjudication procedures are effective in highlighting potential spies, or those who might be compromised. The present system does an adequate job with the "low hanging fruit" of potential security risks--the young soldier who bounces a couple of checks at the PX, or the civilian who went bankrupt during a messy divorce.
But it's not designed to identify individuals who pose the greatest security threat to our nation. Ana Montes, who passed exceptionally sensitive information to Castro's Cuba, was a model employee at the Defense Intelligence Agency, an individual with no apparent personal or financial problems. If not for the efforts of a suspicious DIA counter-intelligence officer, Ms. Montes might still be on the job today, causing more harm to national security.
Or, how about Robert Hansen, the FBI counter-intelligence agent who betrayed some of our most critical intelligence assets inside Russia. His career as a spy for Moscow lasted for almost two decades; he came under suspicion only because his brother-in-law (another FBI employee) discovered large sums of cash in his home. Existing screening measures did not identify Hanssen as a potential spy and it was only insistence of another employee that prompted an investigation.
Then, there's the case of Chi Mak, the Chinese-born engineer who was recently convicted on charges of passing classified military information to the PRC. Mr. Mak, who became a U.S. citizen in 1985, is believed to have passed thousands of pages of documents to his handlers during his career as a spy. At the time of his arrest, Mak was a senior engineer for Power Paragon, a major defense contractor in southern California. Federal agents found hundreds of classified documents in Mak's home at the time of his arrest. Members of Mak's family were also involved in the operation. As with Montes and Hanssen, Mak had a valid security clearance at the time his espionage activities were uncovered.
Will relaxing requirements for access to classified create more spies? Possibly. But we also understand the clearance "crunch" now being faced by the military and the intelligence community. With roughly three-quarters of our recent high school and college graduates ineligible for military service, the pool of future spooks has been seriously depleted. At some point, there will be a need to revise the current rules, but we're not sure the Pentagon plan is the right approach. Waving that "magic wand" and allowing ex-jail birds and felons to receive clearances may create additional problems. After all, some of those folks are "reformed" in name only.
Perhaps the best solution is a modified adjudication system, which grants (or reinstates) clearances on a strict, case-by-case basis. Under that system, applicants previously rejected for a clearance would be allowed to "earn back" their access, with the initial granting of a SECRET clearance, followed (in five years' time) by a TS/SCI. During a probationary period, the individual would be subject to various measures to ensure compliance with required standards, including frequent credit/financial reviews; periodic urinalysis testing, and random polygraphs. Negative information derived from these compliance measures would result in immediate dismissal from their position, and permanent loss of their security clearance.
This "compromise solution" has its own problems. To make it work, you need more supervisory involvement, not to mention more money (and personnel) for required screening and verification procedures. Additionally, the process of "clearing" individuals with a questionable past would probably create more delays for other personnel waiting for their clearances. But it still seems preferable to the Pentagon plan.
We also need a better system for identifying people like Montes, Hanssen and Mak--the spies who pose the greatest threat to our national security. Ask any counter-intelligence officer and they'll tell you: the troop from the military intelligence battalion who's struggling to pay his credit card bill is less an espionage threat that the dedicated ideologue or the "diabolically brilliant" insider, quietly positioned to steal our most vital secrets.
Our current system remains proficient at identifying minimum security risks. But it can't tell us how many high-level spies still operate within our intelligence system, possibly giving away "the family jewels" and almost immune to detection. There's no doubt the security clearance system needs an overhaul, but it's not the one being pushed by DoD.