Frustrations simmered this summer over intelligence leakers: Edward Snowden eluded authorities after divulging sensitive NSA material in June, and Army Pfc. Bradley Manning received a verdict in his court-martial for espionage in July.  Recently Foreign Policy reported General James Cartwright was stripped of his security clearance (seemingly) for his alleged involvement in leaking information about the Stuxnet computer virus.

The essence of holding a security clearance is the determination one is reliable with sensitive and classified information.  While it’s fairly clear how to violate this guideline once cleared (leaking the information to which one has exclusive access), how does a security clearance applicant display his trustworthiness ex ante?

This article will offer some pointers.  First, though, let’s take a brief look at some (in)famous cleared individuals who were subject to suspension/revocation of their clearance, all seemingly on account of their “unauthorized disclosure of classified information.”

General Cartwright: This former vice chairman to the Joint Chiefs of Staff lost his clearance amid Dept. of Justice investigations over his alleged leaking of sensitive information about Stuxnet, a computer virus designed to cyberattack Iran’s nuclear facilities.  Speculations remain whether the leak was malicious or instead deliberate and permitted—designed to bolster the administration’s credibility on national security.

Peter Van Buren: The State Department indefinitely suspended the top secret clearance of Van Buren, a foreign service officer, while he is under investigation after linking to a WikiLeaks document on his blog.  In a memo to Mr. Van Buren, the State Department described the reason for his suspension as “writing and speaking on matters of official concern.”

Paula Broadwell: After news of her affair with Gen. David Petraeus, biographer and military reservist Paula Broadwell was investigated for her alleged unauthorized procurement of classified documents (presumably by way of her paramour).  Investigators discovered the classified files on her computer.  Although it was not confirmed which clearance level Broadwell held, her clearance was suspended pending the outcome of investigations.

“Guideline K”

When determining eligibility for initial or continued access to classified information (a security clearance), the government is required to consider how the applicant fairs under each of 13 “Adjudicative Guidelines” listed in the statute. “Guideline K” deals with an individual’s ability to securely handle protected information.  The statute lists a variety of actions that would be potentially disqualifying for applicants:

  • deliberate or negligent disclosure of classified or other protected information to unauthorized persons…;
  • collecting or storing classified or other protected information in any unauthorized location;
  • inappropriate efforts to obtain or view classified or other protected information outside one’s need to know; etc.

What to Know if You’re Applying

At its heart, the requirement is about reliability, trustworthiness, and good judgment (which is why a denial citing Guideline K is often accompanied with Guideline E, “Personal Conduct”).  Clearance holders are fiduciaries of the United States, demanding of them loyalty and action that is in every way advantageous to the government.  These are the qualities background investigations aim to reveal about an applicant.

While it is difficult to find affirmative examples of honesty, investigators will be searching for past behaviors indicating untrustworthiness.  Here are some samples of what the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals (DOHA) has determined to be compelling evidence of untrustworthiness with secured material.  Each of these instances comes from decisions in which the administrative judge cited the reason for denial of the clearance as a violation of Guideline K.

  • The applicant left a building unsecure; kept combinations to two safes written on a piece of paper in his wallet; and failed to “double-wrap” sensitive material during its transport.  The judge noted the applicant’s “carelessness and inattention to established procedures” when charged with the protection of sensitive material. Case No. 10-05104
  • The applicant, as the last person to leave the office at night, failed to properly secure the lock before leaving; the applicant downloaded classified information he thought to be unclassified onto the company’s Wide Area Network.  Case No. 10-01648
  • The applicant “deliberately concealed misuse of an unclassified [employer-issued] computer …This misuse included surfing the Internet, looking at stock quotes, and buying things….A coworker mentioned in passing that a security officer had advised that personal use of the computer was unauthorized. [Applicant] deliberately did not follow the guidance …because he believed it was too rigid and rationalized he did not know what the real policy was…”  ISCR Case No. 07-08119

Bear in mind it is not just the willful disclosure of information: negligent and unintentional behaviors – whether or not they result in material harm – are equally violative.

One reason applicants can disclose classified information prior to a clearance grant of access to it, is because “handling secure information” encompasses – not only the handling of classified national security information – but also “sensitive but unclassified, embargoed technology, company proprietary, and privacy information.”

In most cases, denied applicants may appeal the decision by applying the mitigating factors listed in the statute.  How much time has passed since the violations and demonstrated efforts to remedy them are relevant considerations on appeal.  Nevertheless, a finding of unreliability is tough to overcome: “Once it is established that an applicant has committed security violations, he or she has a ‘very heavy burden’ of persuasion that he or she should have a clearance,” according to the court.

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