“I’ve got murderers who have access to classified information. I have rapists. I have pedophiles. I have people involved in child porn,” said Defense Security Service Director Daniel Payne, speaking before an audience at this week’s Intelligence and National Security Alliance symposium. “This is the risk we are taking.”
Well, that’s one way to kick off a panel discussion. Amid a number of panel discussions with government leadership about the state of the current security clearance backlog, which sits at around 700,000, including approximately 300,000 brand new clearance requests, Payne’s comments were certainly stark. While industry has been focused on putting a stop to the next Edward Snowden and Reality Winner, it seems DSS is having trouble keeping murderers out of its ranks, if you’re to take the director’s remarks at face value.
His comments were in the context of the risk mitigation strategy involved in granting interim clearances – which have been a part of the clearance process for 30 years. Interim security clearances allow companies and the federal government to put individuals to work – under interim status – as they await a final determination. The process used to be as simple as a few days and a standard criminal and credit check. But in the past year the process was supposed to become more secure – which is why DSS notes it will likely take at least three weeks to process an interim clearance, and may take upwards of several months.
The new requirements include a favorable FBI fingerprint check before granting an interim clearance. That means murderers and rapists shouldn’t be slipping through the cracks, assuming those individuals have been charged of a crime.
When called out for the question, Payne put the number at more than a few and less than a dozen – so, at least he’s keeping tabs. The only specific example he cited was an individual who obtained an interim security clearance and then pulled a gun on another individual during a bar fight and shot him. In that case, Payne’s assessment would be correct – he did have a murderer with access to classified information, but my guess is that would only be the case if that person decided to shoot someone on a Saturday and then walk into work on a Monday. Which probably wasn’t the case.
Big Backlog, Big Problems, Big bureaucrats
Payne’s flippant remarks are meant to draw attention to the serious issue caused by the backlog. But they make the wrong point, with the wrong data. Math was not my strong suit, but assuming the maximum number (12) divided by the eligible population (approximately 3-4 million), and we’re talking about .004% of the population being murderers. And not really murderers at the time of application, but individuals who did something absolutely moronic and evil in the time between when they applied for a security clearance and the time their clearance was processed. In which case any due diligence on the part of their employer should have removed them from eligibility (and any government work) following criminal charges.
Some may read this and think, ‘one murderer is one too many.’ Agreed. But think about any application process for any position – will you vet out every individual with the capacity to do something wrong at some interminable time in the future? If that were the case, the intelligence community (who hasn’t released information on the number of murderers it hires – it doesn’t provide interim clearances, or participate in many panel discussions dissing its own workforce), would never have hired Alger Hiss or Jonathan Pollard.
I worked for the Army (Hooah!) for a few years. Every time there was a sensational story about a soldier screwing up, there were legions of media outlets willing to throw the integrity of the entire Armed Forces under the bus. My pragmatic argument was unwavering – the U.S. military still, and in my mind, will always represent the best of this country. But, it’s also representative of this country. You have individuals with emotional disorders, with serious issues, and with undiagnosed problems who join the rank and file of the military. Recruitment programs are designed to assess applicants for their deployability and ability to accomplish the mission – it’s not going to vet out every bad apple. But that doesn’t mean we still don’t have the best military one could ask for. Our inclination today is so often to hyper focus on the negative, that we neglect anything about the positive.
I’m still not even willing to take Payne’s assessment at face value unless he starts providing some legitimate statistics on the numbers of murderers and rapists he’s granting interim clearances to despite a FBI background check, or despite them committing a crime while having an interim clearance (and somehow DSS isn’t administratively removing them)? But if I did, it doesn’t change the fact that the vast (and I mean vast) majority of both clearance holders and applicants do represent a qualified, talented and integral part of our national security establishment.
This is a rough time to be a security clearance holder – you can probably earn similar pay in the commercial sector, you face the prospect of continuous monitoring and wondering if Uncle Sam is going to see who was a swipe right, you face scrutiny in overseas travel, and the American public thinks you may be a closeted convicted murderer.
Our security clearance process is overdue for a major overhaul (a separate panel comment lamented the eight – yes, eight – years it took to change one question on the SF-86 application for security clearance eligibility). We’re going to need to be much more agile, and improve much faster if we want to be able to compete for talent and maintain our national security programs. We also need to weigh our words carefully, so we’re not encouraging a mass exodus out of this industry and into something much more mundane, but much less important.