If you’ve been following the headlines over the past month you might get the idea that security clearances and classified information are a hot new kind of political currency. From accusations of the Obama White House leaking classified national security details to boost their defense image to Republican Rep. Michelle Bachmann questioning the security clearance of Hilary Clinton’s Muslim aide Huma Abedin, it would appear access to classified materials are as much political fodder as they are vital to our nation’s interest.
It’s no lie to say a security clearance is an asset – job seekers and professionals know it’s a career and salary boon, and if your ambitions include working in an intelligence agency it’s a requirement. But rarely has the term “security clearance” been so much in the news, and with such controversial and political connotations. In perhaps some degree of irony, clearance holders today are under scrutiny from elected officials, despite the fact that elected officials themselves do not undergo a background investigation or receive a security clearance at all.
There are two aspects to most of today’s controversies – is the security clearance adjudication process tough enough to vet out potential risks, and are there repercussions for those who leak classified information?
Existing policies, it would seem, should be sufficient to ensure that terrorists aren’t getting clearances and leakers aren’t staying on the job, but political realities do come into play. Overclassification has been a major issue, and might even make its way into the Bradley Manning defense trial. But I don’t think anyone would argue that thinking something doesn’t need to be classified is a legitimate reason to leak it. On the other hand of the coin, while it’s easy to blame overclassification the reality is that underclassification often occurs, as well – with sensitive information getting into hands it shouldn’t.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper just announced plans to update polygraph procedures to ask specifically about any potential leaks of classified information. That’s great, but day to day it’s a facility security officer who still has the primary responsibility for ensuring personnel are appropriately educated on the importance of protecting classified information. A security officer is also charged with revoking access, where appropriate, and taking advantage of procedures for suspending security clearances.
The Government Accountability Office is calling into question who has access to classified information, and while the focus is on cost savings a recent report also noted that the more individuals who have access, the higher the risk. While not calling for a widespread cut back in cleared professionals, the GAO is calling for clearer procedures for reevaluating the need for access, as well as downgrading clearances wherever possible.
It would seem as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down interest in clearance procedures and access to classified information will only heat up. And with the intelligence community likely to remain busy with increasing emphasis on other countries overseas – including Syria and Yemen – the demand and need for cleared professionals isn’t going anywhere. And neither is the controversy over clearance procedures, and who has access to what.
Lindy Kyzer is the editor of ClearanceJobs.com. She loves cybersecurity, social media, and the U.S. military. Have a conference, tip, or story idea to share? Email email@example.com.