The secrecy apparatus of the United States grew necessarily in response to 9/11. Sixteen years on, there has been a generational shift in the cleared workforce and a corresponding change in attitudes and norms. This, plus a sour national mood and ongoing institutional shortcomings (e.g. national security exemptions allowing organizations a sometimes unfettered hand in employee terminations), make conditions right for a destructive reckoning. There are certainly signs the system is showing its age. To forestall another catastrophic leak or missed “dot,” elected officials and agency heads must embrace the sort of un-sexy reform traditionally low in priority. Those part of—or eager to join—the clearance community, meanwhile, must wait things out.
The Annual Report on Security Clearance Determinations released last year by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence revealed 2.8 million people have been adjudicated favorably for a clearance and read into various classified programs. Another 1.4 million have been adjudicated favorably though aren’t actively accessing files. Such numbers guarantee leaks of classified information; the only questions involve size and motivation. The Manning leaks were significant in scope. The Snowden leaks were astronomical. One was emotionally troubled. One was sharp, determined, and possibly on Russia’s payroll. But regardless of one’s opinion of the two, either can mount a solid argument that they wanted to blow the whistle on some wrongdoing on the part of the government.
Last month’s leak by Reality Winner is a different animal altogether. She had an unambiguously partisan motivation that is perfectly in keeping with the wider national mood. If she proves to be a one-off, we should all be grateful, regardless of party. If, however, she is the first of a series of partisans eager to be lionized by the like-minded on social media, it would be tantamount to the system dismantling itself heedlessly. (That she has been undeservedly bestowed the title of “whistleblower” by people who really ought to know better only confirms her relationship to the current atmosphere.) President Donald Trump’s frequent Twitter tantrums decrying political “leaks” of petty internal problems only threatens to exacerbate the problem. He would be far wiser to get his White House in order and let the administration handle it as a personnel matter (which it is) rather than elevate it to a presidential matter (which it is not). As it stands, he has granted all leaks a certain virtue and equality.
Complicating the problem are the shifting demographics of the cleared workforce. Millennials have become the largest generation in today’s labor pool, and their relationship to information, conceptually and culturally, has been formed by digital media and the Internet. They experienced 9/11 as young children, and thus know the present system not as a response, but as the status quo. Multiple polls suggest a greater emphasis by millennials on privacy versus surveillance, and a favorable attitude toward whistleblowing in general and Snowden in particular. But the post-9/11 secrecy apparatus was not designed with sunlight in mind, and millennials aren’t in policymaker positions. This sets up a natural and inevitable conflict.
“Mission-wise, the intelligence community of the 1950s and the intelligence community of 2017 aren’t that different,” says Kel McClanahan, executive director of National Security Counselors, a non-profit law firm specializing in issues of security clearance law and government secrecy. “They are designed to go and get information from people who pose risks to our security. The identities of the adversaries change. The natures of the adversaries change—state to non-state, individual to group, and so on—but the core mission hasn’t changed.
“And so when the mission doesn’t change and the secrecy doesn’t change but the people in the ranks start changing because of new ideas of transparency and openness, then you are going to have more protests, more whistleblowing, and more people who get fed up with secrecy that they feel is unnecessary. And this generational culture shift is leading to a flash-point moment, which some people argue has already occurred.”
Specifically, you have a security bureaucracy increasingly at odds with the current and would-be cleared workforce. The much-needed Google-type is repelled by way of denied clearances or just general aversion to a system viewed (erroneously or otherwise) as antithetical to personal values, and security offices within cleared organizations are motivated to mount continuous evaluation and insider threat programs that, in trying to deter malevolent leaks, invariably suppress whistleblowers, who have a net positive effect.
In looking for the Reality Winners, in other words, security offices are rolling up the WIlliam Binneys. And so the cycle repeats. The workforce is stunted; whistleblowers remain silent for fear of being flagged; fraud, waste, and abuse is thus enabled, which repels a fresh workforce, etc. The solution to all of this is the meaningful reform of clearance and classification policy and cleared labor force issues, though elected officials have shown little interest in tackling the issue. (Abstruse labor issues don’t win elections in Peoria.) While the security apparatus waits, job-seekers who grew up online, making the malformed opinions of their youth a semi-permanent part of the public record, are safest from a negative adjudication when their social media profiles are set to private.
UNEXPECTED CHANGE AGENT
Ironically, Donald Trump, anathema to millennials and nonplussed with the intelligence community, offers by way of his capriciousness perhaps the best chance ever of system-wide reformation.
“No president was ever going to tell, for example, the director of the CIA, ‘Fix this thing that GS-13s are doing in your clearance office or I’m going to fire you.’ It was too far beneath everybody’s notice, but until that happens, there’s no incentive to fix it from the top,” says McClanahan. “Trump is something else because it is quite possible that in a fit of pique—if someone got him to care about security clearances—he would fire the director of the CIA over something the security clearance office was doing.”
That would only have to happen once and directors would fall over themselves to reform the entire system.
“Regardless of what you may think about whether or not Trump is a good or a bad president, you can’t deny that his leadership style has the potential to upend this bureaucratic monolith that considers itself to be untouchable,” he says. Which means the shape and condition of the secrecy apparatus of the United States might be determined by a race between someone rousing Trump to action versus someone getting roused by Trump to to leak. Change will come. The only question is whether it is from the top down, or bottom up.