Steven Aftergood directs the FAS Project on Government Secrecy. The Project works to reduce the scope of national security secrecy and to promote public access to government information.
He writes Secrecy News, which reports on new developments in secrecy policy for readers in media, government and among the general public.
With the ongoing drive to reform security clearance processes and reduce the number of personnel with security clearances, we reached out to Aftergood to learn what he thought about the current security clearance environment.
Q: Do you think there are benefits to the recent drive to reduce the number of security personnel through the Insider Threat and Security Clearance Reform and other means?
Definitely. Reducing the number of cleared personnel means reducing the number of initial investigations and periodic reinvestigations. That means reducing reducing costs and making the whole system more manageable. Another important consequence is that the available security resources will be more narrowly focused on a smaller population. So one would expect improved performance, security-wise.
Q: Do feel there are drawbacks? If so, what do you think they are?
Reducing the number of cleared persons could be disadvantageous at some point since it could diminish the ability to rapidly “surge” the workforce in new programs that require security-cleared personnel. Even now, it’s not unusual to hear about agencies or contractors who are scrambling to find someone with a particular skill set who also holds an existing clearance.
But there are more than a million cleared people at DoD who are not currently “in access” (i.e. who do not require or possess access to classified information at the moment). So I think there is still plenty of slack in the system.
Q: Given the major security leaks by Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, do you have any thoughts on what can be done to better secure our nation’s secrets?
The goal of security policy cannot be perfect security, since that is not achievable. Rather it should be resilience, which is the ability to quickly recover from the security failures that are likely to occur from time to time. That’s easier said than done, I know, but that should be the goal.
Beyond that, it would be helpful to shrink the problem and thereby to shrink the potential vulnerability. That means reducing the scope of the secrecy system to the minimum necessary. If there are fewer secrets, and fewer persons with access to them, there are going to be fewer potential points of failure.
Q: What are your thoughts on the Continuous Evaluation of cleared individuals? Do you think it’s beneficial?
I understand the logic of Continuous Evaluation. Significant red flags such as criminal activity or massive unexplained debt should be considered quickly and should not have to wait years until a periodic reinvestigation rolls around.
It would be interesting to know whether Continuous Evaluation has actually made a difference up to now. Has it already led to the uncovering of prohibited or problematic behavior and prompted security investigations that would not have occurred otherwise? I don’t know.
Q: Do you think there are any drawbacks to Continuous Evaluation?
Continuous Evaluation seems fairly benign, so far. It just means prompt automated notification of activity that is understood to be problematic anyway (e.g. arrest on criminal charges).
Q: How do you feel that the frequent reinvestigations and random checks of cleared individuals will affect retainment and attraction of people seeking to work for the DoD?
If the Insider Threat program (which is still at an early stage) develops into something more intrusive and oppressive, then it could indeed discourage people from choosing to enter or remain in DoD employment under such conditions. But I think officials at the policymaking level are alert to the danger of security policy becoming self-defeating in that way. I haven’t seen evidence of systematic over-reaching up to now.
Q: The creation of the new National Background Investigations Bureau was recently criticized by a House committee. What do you feel are the pros and cons of this new bureau when it comes to handling security clearances?
Creation of the NBIB represents a fresh start using an entity specializing in the area and with no competing responsibilities, unlike OPM. That’s a plus.
Standing up a new organization will take some time and will require a learning curve. That’s regrettable, but necessary.
Q: In light of the OPM breach and Obama’s pledge to review security clearance processes, what do you feel can be done to help fix the system?
The system probably cannot be entirely fixed, if that means eliminating all failures and all mistakes. Perfection is out of reach. But to the extent that the system can be reduced in size, it becomes more manageable. That’s progress.