A wise mentor of mine once advised, “There are two ways to guarantee you’ll lose your clearance: Fool around with money and morals.” As we’ve seen in the news, morals have costs both careers and clearances. Money crimes related to contractor sweetheart deals in the South Pacific also cost several naval officers their career. By contrast, most of us can make a parade of dumb mistakes our entire career and come through. It all depends on motive.
Sometimes money or morals is only the pretense, and there is much ore beneath the surface. Espionage often plays by chess rules, not those of football. In a football game, you see what a player on the field is trying to do. Once caught, he is tackled. The down is official. In chess, the master thinks several moves ahead. You can’t read minds, so you often fall into his trap. The trap is that you might believe you’ve ended the play by taking a piece, only to find out you’ve fallen for a larger plot several moves ahead. You didn’t anticipate that.
Translate this to the clearance world. You go to a barbecue, and encounter someone from work. He happily introduces you to a foreign colleague who works for a reputable company. You become acquainted, and about a month later get a call from this foreign acquaintance asking you out for drinks. No foul there, right? Did you report your new foreign contact to your security officer when you went back to work after the party? This first charming encounter at the party could have been a pretext to get you relaxed and seemingly connected through a mutual friend. You really don’t know who he is, do you? Best to tell your security manager.
Ever been on a trip to a foreign country where you can’t believe the favorable exchange rate? Were you ever tempted to purchase some currency illicitly off the street where the exchange rate is astronomically in your favor? Or, did you ever buy a gem in your hotel because the price was a steal in your currency? This scam is practiced by foreign governments to compromise travelers. The scam, your marvelous exchange rate, is remarkably discovered upon your departure by the customs check. You are then held for this crime you’ve just committed by the laws of their country.
The reality is they want you to tell them something. Upon being quizzed by ‘customs officials’ you are asked about your project, your part in the project, others, the scope of their work, any number of things. Only upon satisfactorily answering these questions are you, reluctantly, allowed to depart. In gratitude, you sprint to your plane and depart. Did you tell your security officer at work about this afterward? Were you too embarrassed? Foreign espionage chess players count on you not reporting such incidents for fear of ‘reprisal’ by your own security. Not true. Report it.
In fact, ask yourself this. How would you report this? Does your company require a written report after every official trip? It should. Secondly, if you have information of a believed intelligence interest to report, that should be done in person. Why? A report through channels expands the number of those who know about the incident. Best to keep that close hold.
So check yourself before you violate anything abroad or at home. It could only be the first move in a game you don’t even know you are playing.