The Personnel Security Clearance System—the process by which the federal government incorporates individuals into secret national-security work—is flawed. After twenty-three years of federal service, Martha Louise Deutscher explores the current system and the amount of power afforded to the state in contrast to that afforded to those who serve it. Deutscher’s timely examination of the U.S. screening system shows how security clearance practices, including everything from background checks and fingerprinting to urinalysis and the polygraph, shape and transform those individuals who are subject to them. By bringing participants’ testimonies to light, Deutscher looks at the efficacy of various practices while extracting revealing cultural insights into the way we think about privacy, national security, patriotism, and the state. In addition to exposing the stark realities of a system that is in critical need of rethinking, Screening the System provides recommendations for a more effective method that will be of interest to military and government professionals as well as policymakers and planners who work in support of U.S. national security.
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About the Author
Martha Louise Deutscher retired in 2013 after twenty-three years of federal service. During her tenure at the U.S. Department of Defense, Deutscher served as the chief of public and legislative affairs for the Defense Security Service, the Defense Education Activity, and the Business Transformation Agency. In her work with the U.S. Information Agency, Deutscher produced live broadcasts with Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, Kofi Annan, and other international policy experts.
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Screening the System
Exposing Security Clearance Dangers
By Martha Louise Deutscher
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
The Many Faces of a Threat
When granting a security clearance, the state seeks to screen out those who cannot be trusted with secrets. In order to do so, the security clearance system demands that all participants in the system take for granted foundational assumptions that naturalize the national security needs of the state, the security clearance system, and its processes.
At times throughout U.S. history, specific groups of people, including federal workers, have been perceived as threats to national security. War, international alliances, sabotage, surprise attacks, and leaks have all shaped national security priorities as well as the lives of those entrusted to serve the state. In this section, I briefly explain how some perceived threats to the national security have evolved.
What quickly becomes evident is the multifaceted nature of the threat to national security and the magnitude of the workload for those required to keep secrets safe. Every time a federal employee commits a violent act in the workplace people ask, "How did he get a security clearance?" Every time an employee leaks secrets to the press or commits espionage, the same question arises. The state must defend against a plethora of current and potential obstacles using its current security clearance apparatus. Just as military planners are chastised for fighting the last war, it is the tendency of personnel security bureaucrats to rely on existing and familiar tactics. But it is important for those responsible for the clearance system to look for better technologies and methodologies with which to keep secrets safe. Just like snowflakes, no two individuals are exactly alike, and predicting human behavior is tricky.
The Cold War and the Red and Lavender Scares
From George Washington's time on, presidential administrations have grappled with ways to promote national security while mitigating security threats. When John Adams became president in 1797, his national security concerns were shaped by a war between the French and the British that caused intense partisanship among contending factions within the United States. Adams feared political unrest abroad might influence secession movements at home. He voiced his national security concerns to Congress, which authorized raising a provisional army. Congress also passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, intended to frighten foreign agents into leaving the country and stifle attacks on the administration by the opposition press. Among other things, the acts forbade any individual or group to oppose "any measure or measures of the United States." Under the Sedition Act, it was illegal to say, write, or print anything about the president that brought him "into contempt or disrepute." Four major newspapers were charged with sedition just before the presidential election of 1800, and several foreign-born journalists were threatened with expulsion. The attorney general charged seventeen people with sedition, and ten were convicted.
Benjamin Franklin Bache, a grandson of Benjamin Franklin and editor of the Philadelphia Aurora newspaper, was charged with "libeling the President and the Executive Government in a manner tending to excite sedition and opposition to the laws." Bache had written an editorial referring to the president as "old, querulous, bald, blind, crippled, toothless Adams." While one can understand why Bache was persona non grata at the Adams White House, it is easy to see why his arrest led to a public outcry against the Alien and Sedition Acts and contributed to the election, in 1800, of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson pardoned all those convicted under the Sedition Act, and Congress returned all fines paid, with interest.
Not until the twentieth century did espionage emerge again as a national security priority. President Woodrow Wilson signed the Espionage Act of 1917 two months after the United States entered World War I in response to German agents blowing up a munitions dump in New York Harbor. As during previous wars, hysteria surrounding foreign agents ensued. In addition to the Espionage Act, in 1918 Congress passed another Sedition Act, criminalizing, among other things, "abusive language" about the government.
Although some of the most important legislation associated with national security predates World War I, it is the Cold War that familiarized most Americans with the concept of a security clearance.
The Cold War
As the new Soviet enemy emerged after World War II, national security priorities focused on preventing government employees from sharing secrets with that enemy. The emphasis in the Eisenhower administration was on keeping its nuclear secrets. But J. Robert Oppenheimer, the nation's most famous nuclear scientist, called on the government to release nuclear secrets. Oppenheimer had headed the Manhattan Project, a secret weapons program that developed, tested, and made possible the use of the first atomic weapons during World War II. But in February 1953 he gave a speech arguing that, rather than keeping any discussion of the nuclear program secret, it was actually more candor that was required in the service of national security. Indeed Oppenheimer believed that the only way to avoid an arms race was to share scientific knowledge with the Soviet Union. According to Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, Oppenheimer's ideas were in the minority and not at all well accepted in Washington: "It is hard to imagine a more provocative speech.... Here was a celebrated private citizen, armed with the highest security clearance, denigrating the secrecy that surrounded the nation's war plans. As word spread through Washington's national security bureaucracy of what Oppenheimer had said, many were appalled."
So in retrospect it is no surprise that on December 21, 1953, Oppenheimer was told that his security clearance had been suspended, pending resolution of a series of charges, and he was asked to resign. Oppenheimer chose not to resign and requested a hearing instead. The hearing that followed in April and May of 1954 focused on Oppenheimer's past Communist ties and his association, during the Manhattan Project, with suspected disloyal or Communist scientists. When the outcomes of the hearings were later made public, Americans learned that the Atomic Energy Commission had revoked the security clearance of the "father of the atomic bomb."
Part of the reason that Oppenheimer's hearings were of such interest to the public was that 1953 was also the year Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed after having been convicted of espionage for passing atomic secrets to the Soviets. The Rosenberg case garnered worldwide attention. The Rosenbergs' supporters claimed they were being made scapegoats to the "Red Scare" then sweeping America. The French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called their execution a "legal lynching." Sartre and others pointed out that even if the Rosenbergs did pass secrets to the Soviets during World War II, Russia had been an ally, not an enemy, of the United States at the time. Irrespective of their relative guilt, the Rosenbergs' execution galvanized the attention of the American public to the retaliation of the state against its employees charged with espionage and treason.
The Red Scare
As noted, both the Oppenheimer and the Rosenberg hearings were entangled with the ongoing national Red Scare and the Cold War. But near the end of World War II, the national security priority was to win the war, in part by beating the Axis powers to the development of an atomic bomb and then by using it against them. So the threat that government workers posed was perceived to be classic espionage — the direct disclosure of nuclear secrets to the nation's enemies (Germany and Japan).
But with the advance of the Cold War, the national security threat had crystallized against the Soviet Union — a former ally. When Russia built its own bomb (partly with secrets supplied through espionage), the perceived threat was that federal workers might be "fellow travelers" or Communists with sympathies toward the Soviet Union and its quest for a global commune.
Beginning in 1950, Senator Joseph Raymond "Joe" McCarthy became the public face of Cold War tensions by fueling fears of Communist conspiracies and subversion among federal workers and others. He claimed that there were large numbers of Communists and Soviet spies and sympathizers inside federal government entities and industries. McCarthy rose to national fame in February 1950 when he asserted in a speech that he had a list of members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring employed in the U.S. State Department.
Although he was never able to prove those charges, he continued to claim that Communists had infiltrated the Truman administration's State Department, the Voice of America, and the United States Army. He also used various charges of Communism, Communist sympathies, disloyalty, and homosexuality to attack politicians and other individuals inside and outside of government. One of the most publicized and notable examples of McCarthy's tactics during his House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings was the compilation of "blacklists," particularly in the entertainment industry where celebrity informants (like then–Screen Actors Guild President Ronald Reagan) were encouraged to report to the committee on the political activities of fellow actors, writers, directors, and others in the industry. Many of those accused lost their jobs in the process.
The Lavender Scare
Not as widely known as McCarthy's anti-Communist crusade were his various attempts to intimidate, and expel from government positions, persons whom he accused, or threatened to publicly accuse, of homosexuality. Former U.S. senator Alan K. Simpson has written: "The so-called 'Red Scare' has been the main focus of most historians of that period of time. A lesser-known element ... and one that harmed far more people was the witch-hunt McCarthy and others conducted against homosexuals."
The genesis of Simpson's observation may have been Eisenhower's Executive Order 10450, which revoked Truman's 1947 Executive Order 9835, sometimes called the Loyalty Order. Truman's order had stated, "There shall be a loyalty investigation of every person entering the civilian employment of any department or agency of the executive branch of the Federal Government." But Eisenhower's new Executive Order 10450 charged the heads of federal agencies and the Office of Personnel Management, supported by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), with investigating federal employees to determine not only if they were loyal to the United States but also whether they posed "security risks." And it expanded the definitions and conditions used to make such determinations.
Previously, the criteria used to define a security risk within the federal workforce were political, including affiliation with suspect organizations, aiding and abetting the enemy, sympathizing with subversives, and other clear demonstrations of disloyalty. And as noted earlier, during the Adams and Wilson administrations the perceived threat was from foreign influences such as saboteurs. Executive Order 10450 expanded the definition of what a security threat, in the form of a government worker, might look like. These included estimations of character and lifestyle choices: "Any criminal, infamous, dishonest, immoral, or notoriously disgraceful conduct, habitual use of intoxicants to excess, drug addiction, or sexual perversion."
Another notable impact of Executive Order 10450 was that Truman's earlier order had applied only to the State Department and selected military agencies. Eisenhower's new order extended to all employees of the federal government, including the military. David Johnson describes the impact of the new order and the resignation or firing of more than eight hundred federal employees in the two years between 1953 and 1955 whose files contained information about "sexual perversion."
The purge, which took place in government and the defense industry, was comprehended by some (although not by many) at the time as the disaster that it was. Johnson writes that there were also those who understood the personal devastation that federal employees endured under the purge. "Almost no corporation or other private business will hire a man with such a stigma on his record," warned a prominent Washington psychiatrist. "If the present wave of public sentiment continues, certain male and female homosexuals will become persons without a country, since they may find it practically impossible to earn a living."
The Crittenden Report
The misplaced enmity toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) federal workers was outlined by the Board Appointed to Prepare and Submit Recommendations to the Secretary of the Navy for the Revision of Policies, Procedures and Directives Dealing With homosexuals. In a report that was later dubbed the "Crittenden Report," named for the admiral who headed the board, it evaluated Navy policies dealing with homosexual personnel. Those policies were based in part on assertions made in a December 1950 Senate report of the Investigations Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Expenditure in Executive Departments, which said that all of the government's intelligence agencies "are in complete agreement that sex perverts in Government constitute security risks."
The Crittenden Report, by contrast, concluded that there was "no sound basis for the belief that homosexuals posed a security risk" and criticized the Senate report: "No intelligence agency, as far as can be learned, adduced any factual data before that committee with which to support these opinions," and said that "the concept that homosexuals necessarily pose a security risk is unsupported by adequate factual data." The Crittenden Report remained secret until 1976. Navy officials claimed they had no record of studies of homosexuality, but attorneys learned of its existence and obtained it through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Clinton and Executive Order 12968
In 1995, President William Jefferson Clinton signed Executive Order 12968 establishing uniform policies for the assignment and administration of personnel security clearances and access to classified information. The order's antidiscrimination statement, "The United States Government does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, or sexual orientation in granting access to classified information," was important because it included "sexual orientation" for the first time in an executive order. It also stipulates that "no inference" about suitability for access to classified information "may be raised solely on the basis of the sexual orientation of the employee."
The federal government had, at least since the Eisenhower administration and probably before, wrongly assumed that homosexuality was a disqualifying factor for holding a security clearance, despite the opposite findings of the U.S. Navy's Crittenden Report in 1957 and many others since. But there had never been any data to back up the discrimination against homosexuals. Clinton's order not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in granting access to classified information was important because it put to rest the blackmail rationale for declining clearance to LGBT Americans.
After Clinton's order, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) actively began recruiting LGBT Americans by cosponsoring networking events with them. According to the CIA, the agency is one of the founding partners of Outserve, an organization that provides legal aid and other resources to gay active-duty military personnel. In a recruiting event in Miami in 2012, Michael Barber, the CIA's LGBT community outreach and liaison program manager, said, "Part of the reason we're doing outreach is ... that this is no longer an issue for holding security clearance, that we want the best and the brightest regardless of your sexual orientation."
President Obama, in his 2012 State of the Union address, said, "When you put on that uniform, it doesn't matter if you're black or white; Asian, Latino, Native American; conservative, liberal; rich, poor; gay, straight. When you're marching into battle, you look out for the person next to you, or the mission fails." That year also marked the first ever Department of Defense Pride Month celebration, where Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta addressed a full auditorium at the Pentagon via video message saying, "As we recognize Pride month, I want to personally thank all of our gay and lesbian service members, LGBT civilians, and their families for their dedicated service to our country."
As a result of this about-face, the pressure may be off LGBT individuals who seek to hold a security clearance. The same is not true for other segments of the federal workforce.
Ethnicity, Nationality, and Other Threats
When Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Franklin Roosevelt's national security priority shifted to organizing the nation for global war. Before Pearl Harbor, the FBI was already tracking elements and organizations that were suspected of loyalty to Germany, Japan, or Italy, and many people were arrested in the weeks after; seven thousand German and Italian aliens (non–U.S. citizens) were moved away from their homes on or near the West Coast and, along with 110,000 people of Japanese heritage (most of whom were U.S. citizens), put into "war relocation camps." Americans of Japanese descent were also banned from joining the military at the time. For example, Daniel Inouye, future Medal of Honor recipient and U.S. senator, was only allowed to serve as a medical volunteer in his home state of Hawaii when the war broke out. But in 1943, when the U.S. Army dropped its enlistment ban on Japanese Americans, Inouye enlisted in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a U.S. Army unit of second-generation Japanese Americans. Many Americans of Japanese descent who had been previously interned with their families volunteered to serve their country.
Excerpted from Screening the System by Martha Louise Deutscher. Copyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
List of Abbreviations
1. The Many Faces of a Threat
The Cold War, the Red and Lavender Scares
The "Crittendon Report"
Clinton and Executive Order 12968
Ethnicity as Threat
So Many Threats
2. The Personnel Security Clearance Process
Going Through the Process
Personnel Security and Big Data
The Adjudicative Guidelines for Determining Eligibility to Access Classified Information and Some Complications Surrounding Them
3. Running Afoul of the System
Unanimous Agreement on the Need for Clearance
Flaws in the System
What Are the Limits on Investigators and Interviews
Problems with Self-Reporting
Problems with the Polygraph
The Presumption of Guilt
Problems with "The Symptems"
Problems with Leadership
Resilience, Dissent, and Disruption
Thoughts on Puritanish
4. Summary and Recommendations
Recommendations for a Better Clearance System
Appendix: Adjudicative Guidelines for Determining Eligibility for Access to Classified Information