The Quest for Clearance
It was late spring 2007, and I had arrived right before sunset at Centerville’s new ‘in place’ for the 30 something techie crowd. I was supposed to meet two friends there, have a drink, and then head to the restaurant next door for an early dinner. As soon as I walked in I spotted both of them, and a third person, a man in his early thirties whom I’d never met before, I’ll call him ‘Joe,’ and headed towards their table. After brief introductions the trio resumed their conversation where they’d left off. The topic had to do with current hot jobs and the latest career trends in the area, which caters to the federal government…
I was listening only half-heartedly until one of my friends, a woman in her mid thirties who worked for a midsize travel agency, started talking about how she’d been waiting for the completion of the process to get her security clearance, and that she couldn’t wait to get ‘the darn thing,’ and with it her promotion and a 15% salary increase. Now that perked up my ears and grabbed my full attention. After all, I’d been intimately familiar with security clearances and related issues for several years and dealt with them extensively, working with hundreds of national security whistleblowers, and networking with attorneys. What I couldn’t understand was this:
Why in the world would a travel agent working in a private travel agency need or want to have a security clearance?!
So, I asked: ‘What do you need the clearance for?’
And she responded: ‘The agency I work for has a contract with the federal government. We provide airline tickets, rental car and hotel reservations for some federal employees…’
I asked again: ‘So why do you need clearance to do that?’
She said: ‘Well, the government agency requires that only those employees with security clearance handle their account, and since it is a fairly large account the travel agency I work for assigns several travel agents.’
After a brief a pause it dawned on me, ‘Oh, I guess your account is with one of THOSE agencies…DOD, CIA… gotcha…’
My friend interrupted: ‘No, actually it’s not. It’s the Department of Commerce. And it’s not even for their executive level people…just regular employees.’
I kept asking myself why in the world the Commerce Department would require travel agents with security clearance to handle their good ole ordinary travel arrangements.
I guess I was thinking out loud because my friend tried to justify, well, at least her end of this deal: ‘The point is they pay much bigger bucks to my employer, and my employer pays those of us with clearance who handle this account 15% more in salary than the travel agents with no clearance who have regular accounts…’
I guess it made sense; perfectly. Government agencies don’t pay from their own pockets; they have at their disposal unlimited access to taxpayers’ dollars. So someone in The Department of Commerce apparently made this ridiculous rule - padded their civil servant status and importance - treated their inferiority complex from being placed much lower in the chain of civil servants (waaaayyy below the CIA, DIA, FBI…, ),and made it a requirement to have cleared travel agents handle their travel. As for the travel agency’s perspective: Hallelujah!!! They get a contract with the feds where they can pad their prices and never worry about having to give the best deal in terms of price/value. In fact pad it enough to pay 15% increased salaries to those on the fed account, and still have plenty of profit left.
TSC Compliance & Disclosure on Banging
As I was processing the above information and reasoning, the man, Joe, straightened his shoulders, and if I’m not mistaken, kind of puffed up his chest…you know the body language I’m talking about; right?
He said: ‘I’ve got TSC; Top Secret Clearance. I’ve had it for almost a year now. My pay went up 25% the day I got it.’
Since the other two were obviously familiar with his line of work I was the one with the first question: ‘So who do you service?’
He put on the coolest and most aloof expression he could manage, which ended up being neither cool nor aloof: ‘I can’t talk about it. All I can tell you is that I’m a software programmer and we’ve got big contracts all right…’
I decided not to press ‘who for or why’, and instead, try to find out how much he understood of the significance of having TSC as a private sector employee, both positive and negative.
Obviously he considered the 25% increase in salary as the major positive; well, obviously. And considering his body language and tone he appeared to regard his clearance status as something ‘cool,’ ‘important,’ and ‘ego-boosting.’ He was single, so maybe he thought it made him more of a chick magnet…So I decided to see if he perceived any downside to having a TSC.
I asked him bluntly: ‘There are bunch of things you end up giving up for TSC; some would even say ‘they get you by the …’ don’t you think?’
Joe, already on his third drink, nodded: ‘Yeah.’ And then he said something I was neither expecting nor prepared for, ‘It complicates everything in the banging department.’
After a brief pause I recovered:’ How so?’
Joe: ‘Well, basically, you have to report who you sleep with and all the details if the girl is not a citizen, or has an accent or something.’ He continued, ‘About 8 months ago I met this hot woman with a cute accent and we hit it off right away…stayed together that weekend…and that Monday I had to go and report the entire thing...’
I probed for more details: ‘You mean report in writing? - Orally?’
Joe:’ Both! First, I had to fill out this form, and then I was called in to answer questions and give more details…’
I interrupted him: ‘No kidding! They have a form for this??! What’s it called, ‘Banging Disclosure Form? BDF?’
If he got my sarcasm he didn’t show it, instead he continued very seriously: ‘Just a standard form to fill out general information on foreign persons you come in close contact with, name, nationality, etc. But once in the office for follow up, then they ask you all these details ‘What was her full name?’ ‘What’s her nationality?’ ‘Where does she live?’ ‘How many times did you do it? Over how long?’…you know!’
I nodded understandingly, and he went on: ‘I mean you don’t ask for your new woman’s exact date of birth! How am I supposed to know? Go through her bag for ID while she’s in the bathroom?!...They ask me where she’s from and I can’t even remember; Greece? Lebanon?... Anyway, I’m done with foreign or foreign sounding women…’
This was getting a bit too much for me; trying not to laugh at the absurdity. The man could only come up with, could only think of, one downside and that had to do with ‘chicks.’ And obviously to him Greece and Lebanon were almost the same, either geographically or linguistically. I couldn’t detect in him even a minute trace of political or legal understanding. So, I didn’t bother bringing up issues like:
What happens when you decide to publicly oppose the current butchering of our civil liberties and speak up about it? Won’t they use your TSC and threaten its removal, thus your employment? Or maybe you’ll decide on your own against speaking out; thinking self-preservation. Because in 2005 I received many e-mails/letters from people who told me they wished they could sign a certain petition against constitutional abuses, but they feared for their clearance and job security, so they felt and believed they couldn’t.
What happens when you or your spouse or your partner joins a rally, albeit a peaceful protest, against war(s) or other human rights abuses committed in our name? Won’t they use that constitutionally and democratically sanctioned action against your ‘clearance,’ your job, thus, against you? Because just last month when I called a good friend, who also happens to be antiwar, to join me in an antiwar rally in DC, she was almost in tears and told me she couldn’t because her husband had a clearance, and that they feared her participation in a rally might jeopardize that clearance and their livelihood.
What happens when you witness a criminal or fraudulent act related to your work, and since a contractor to the feds, one with consequences to citizens and taxpayers, and you rightfully feel obligated to report or disclose it to the public? Won’t they come after you with criminal prosecution threats for violating your clearance? Because many whistleblowers have been through this exact experience, and been left with no employment and almost no course of action.
No, I couldn’t tell him all that and more. Even if I did, what would my lone voice accomplish toward raising this guy’s awareness, when the media, the government, and all their related tentacles are doing the exact opposite? He believed he was cleared, he believed he was one of the chosen ones, and unless one day, even if by chance, he faces the dark realities of his valuable rights being substituted for being ‘cleared or chosen’, he’ll hang on to these beliefs.
The Nation of Cleared & Not Cleared
Based on GAO’s July 2009 data, about 2.4 million persons currently hold security clearances for authorized access to classified information. And this figure, 2.4 million, does NOT even include some of those with clearances who work in areas of national intelligence.
In fiscal year 2008 the Office of Personnel Management and the Defense Department processed about 450,000 requests for confidential, secret and top-secret clearances. According to bits and pieces of data here and there, there are over three million federal employees who require security clearances for jobs. These jobs range from:
Routine computer system maintenance to sensitive analysis of spy satellite photos. All require at least a background check of personal and work history, foreign travel and finances. Top-secret clearance currently requires interviews with neighbors, references and current and former spouses.
Contractors pay a premium for workers with current clearances, often offering higher salaries and signing bonuses. That can cost an extra $10,000 to $40,000 per employee per year, all of which gets passed on to taxpayers, Davis says.
And here is an example of how having clearance is advertised and glamorized:
Job candidates with security clearances are hotter-than-ever commodities in the Washington area and elsewhere, due to higher demand, tighter security requirements and a wave of baby-boomer retirements, according to recruitment officials.
ClearanceJobs.com, based in Des Moines, Iowa, recently released a survey that found that those with security clearances earn an average 25 percent more than similarly skilled workers who lack them. That gap has been widening, too.
"It's the hottest ticket in town," Paul Villella, chief executive of the Reston-based recruitment firm HireStrategy, said of the security clearance. "It's in many cases better than having an MBA."
Security clearance has always been the weapon of choice for the federal government when it comes to covering up malfeasance or criminal deeds and dealing with and silencing whistleblowers. The paragraph below summarizes this weakness granted as a privilege and later used and exploited to threaten and silence:
The voices of some of government's most conscientious and competent employees are routinely silenced by managers who threaten to revoke their security clearances. While most of those with clearance work in defense and intelligence roles, by no means is the problem confined to CIA, NSA, DHS, DOD and the FBI. Many employees at agencies like the Department of Agriculture also hold clearances. Many of those required to hold clearances have little if any real need for them. But, agency managers find security clearances a handy way to make an end run around laws that protect workers from discrimination, whistleblower retaliation, politicization, cronyism, and other abuses. Under the rules established by Executive Order, agencies can fire an employee with a clearance for virtually any reason. Employees who appeal a revocation or suspension have almost no due process protections - and even those are not guaranteed because there is no external review of the agency's decision
Mark Klein, the AT&T whistleblower, has been emphasizing the importance of not having clearance in his ability to disclose NSA’s illegal wiretapping facilities being housed in, run through, and operated from AT&T facilities. I suggest you listen to our Podcast interview with Mr. Klein if you haven’t already. Here is a quote from Klein on why he decided to do the right thing and disclose the illegality that was/is being committed against Americans:
So I figured I'm it, because see, I don't have a security clearance. They can't do anything to me about that.
And here is some information on those with Top Secret Clearance at AT&T who felt bound and tied, and so remained silent against the constitutional abuses committed against their nation:
The former network technician said he knows at least three AT&T employees who have been working in the room since 2002. "It took them six months to get the top-security clearance for the guys," the network technician said. "Although they work for AT&T, they're actually doing a job for the government." He said that each of them underwent extensive background checks before starting their jobs in the room. The vetting process included multiple polygraph tests, employment history reviews, and interviews with neighbors and school instructors, going as far back as elementary school.
Aid said that type of vetting is precisely the kind NSA personnel who receive top-secret SCI (Sensitive Compartmented Information) clearance go through. "Everybody who works at NSA has an SCI clearance," said Aid
Another example of how security clearance provides the perfect weapon for threatening, silencing and firing the inconvenient voices:
In its lawsuit, the ACLU charges that the DOE took away El-Ganayni's clearance to retaliate against him for publicly criticizing U.S. foreign policy and the FBI. The agency sought to cover up its retaliation against El-Ganayni, a foreign-born Muslim, for his constitutionally protected speech by invoking "national security." As a result of the revocation, El-Ganayni was fired from his job.
"After eighteen years of dedicated service working to improve America's national-defense capabilities, the U.S. government thanked Moniem El-Ganayni with a pink slip instead of a blue ribbon," …"The Energy Department knows it cannot admit that it revoked Mr. El-Ganayni's clearance because he has been an outspoken critic of the U.S. government's treatment of Muslims here and abroad, so it is hiding behind ‘national security' to avoid having to explain itself."
The Subservient States & Local Governments
The federal government has been using clearance as their weapon of choice for dissent killing. Considering the stellar performance of clearance as a mean to control why not cast it further? Why not go beyond direct employees, contract employees, and subcontract employees? Why not use this tool to rein in state and local governments, and make them even more subservient to big brother? After the September 11 Terrorist Attacks, that’s exactly what the Federal Government started doing:
FBI is doing background checks on elected officials around the country so the politicians can receive top-secret clearances for briefings on terrorism. While local law enforcement officials and politicians going through the process praise the FBI initiative, civil libertarians find it deeply disturbing. After 9/11, the FBI offered governors, mayors, and police chiefs the opportunity to gain access to classified information if they underwent a thorough vetting. The program is voluntary, and the FBI did not provide figures on how many local officials were participating.
And here is a well-reasoned argument from an expert in this area:
Being involved in street protests is a problem in FBI files, asserts professor David Price of St. Martins College, who has done extensive research and writing on the FBI, including reading the results of many background checks of deceased academics and politicians. He adds, I’m not sure what constitutionally protected means under the Patriot Act. We need to be very worried about this.
Price is also concerned about what will happen when a prominent politician fails to pass the background check. The FBI is notorious for leaks, he says. Price is concerned we are headed toward a political environment where the FBI determines who is fit for public office. He imagines incumbents will be asked on the campaign trail, Do you have a security clearance?
And this is an appropriate response from one politician who should be followed by the rest:
At least one former public official shares Prices concerns: ex-Seattle Mayor Paul Schell. We don’t turn in our privacy and freedom in exchange for our security, asserts Schell. He is astounded that the federal government would require a public official who has been thoroughly vetted by the electoral process to undergo an investigation before receiving important briefings. It’s another erosion of the relationship between the federal government and the people. Schell also bristles at the invasion of privacy, What the hell business is it of the FBIs?
Unfortunately Mayor Paul Schell is truly a rarity. Except for less than a handful of state and local politicians and authorities the Feds seem to have gotten what they aimed for: hook them all at once with clearance bait.
Casting Wider & Further Until…?
Besides its own employees, its contractors, and the states, the Feds have also been experimenting with another segment; attorneys, thus the Judicial Branch:
The U.S. government continues to delay security clearances for attorneys seeking to represent Khalid Sheikh Mohammed even as formal charges are announced against him and four other detainees today as part of the Bush administration's military commission system.
David Nevin and Scott McKay, two attorneys from the ACLU's John Adams Project who are interested in representing Mohammed, are still awaiting final security clearance from the Department of Defense to represent him. Nevin and McKay were granted security clearances for another terrorism-related case four and a half years ago and applied for clearances for this case in February.
In fact, the final parting words of FBI executive officers to me were: “You have no right to hire any attorney other than those cleared with us, due to classification and national security reasons.” And, they tried very hard to intimidate my attorneys, Kohn, Kohn & Colapinto, with repeated notifications saying they were required to have security clearance to represent me or hear my case. In this particular instance they failed; the attorneys didn’t fall for it. But then again, this is a rarity. In many cases involving national security whistleblowers, even if money is not an object, it is extremely hard, next to impossible, to obtain legal representation. Many attorneys get intimidated and readily give up when they see the ‘security clearance required’ flag waved before them by the Feds.
It is not really difficult to see the attraction, the lure, thus the significant increase in the number of applicants seeking to obtain clearance. Who would be willing to disregard a 25% or more increase in income? Only a few, if any. The heck with what a few civil libertarian experts and the members of the irate minority club say or warn about. How many politicians, state and local government authorities, would resist the perceived privilege to be let into the national security circle and the secrecy club? As we can see, not many; less than a handful.
So the question is where is this leading? There will be millions of government employees, more millions of private contractors’ employees and their subcontractor’s employees, and state and local government politicians, authorities, employees, and their contractors’ employees, and attorneys practicing in employment and government related arenas … all hooked with this requirement of ‘Security Clearance;’ then what? In fact why even bother with National ID Cards, since pretty soon you’ll end up with millions combed through, stamped and monitored as ‘Cleared,’ and the left-over marked simply as NC; ’Not Cleared.’
I can see this system of national categorization of ‘Cleared’ and 'Not Cleared' ('C’ & ‘NC'), leading to a certain degree of confusion, being mixed up with the ‘Chosen’ and the ‘Not Chosen.’ In a way the latter kind of applies too. Societies have always exhibited division lines along economic status, blood line, education, color, race…Maybe this will be the new divide: the separation of Cleared from Not Cleared, or to some the Chosen from the Not Chosen.
Now, how many of you would want to, are willing to, will choose to, be the wearer of the new and upcoming scarlet letters ‘NC’?