Security clearance holders are briefed regularly on security protocols and standard operating procedures. Unusual circumstances still occur, and we need to be prepared for those, as well. What are some of the odd events that might compromise our efforts, if not responded to properly and expeditiously?

They read like episodes of Sherlock Holmes. For example, an estate sale agency called a counterintelligence officer on a nearby federal facility to report that a man, recently deceased, had boxes of ‘government papers’ in his home. How did they get there? What would you do, if you were the security manager who received the call?

In another incident, a young man was discovered dead near a river with classified information ‘on his person.’ What would you do if you were so notified?

In yet another strange circumstance, intelligence personnel were contacted when a host of government ‘components’ were found in a dumpster, having been thrown there by someone emptying a storage unit. What just happened? Where did the government information come from, and why was an element of counterintelligence brought into the business?  Would you know who to contact and how to react?

Specifically, what are your responsibilities as clearance holders to prevent such ‘unusual’ events from occurring in the first place? Then, if such events do happen, would you know what to do? Think about these questions as you prepare Standard Operating Procedures for your cleared personnel. Let’s take these cases one by one, to see just what to do.

Uncovering a Dead Man’s Secrets

Security policy and training makes it clear – cleared contractor or government personnel cannot bring classified work home with them. They can only work on classified projects at the office, and then only in certain parts of the office. Why is that? Classified information must remain under positive control. What if, however, an overly zealous person brings it home despite all the warnings against doing so? But what if he does bring it home? The loss of positive control happens, as our example shows, when the man dies and secrets are found in his home. When a cleared person dies, his government equipment and information must be accounted for. A protocol should be established with local law enforcement for notification and review of any government property which comes to their attention.

Suicides and Security Clearances

Secondly, the case of the dead man found with classified information should have a protocol. An old rule of counterintelligence was that federal investigators had to be notified of all suicides of cleared government personnel. This is because there was concern that the man might have chosen suicide to escape the bonds of espionage he’d created for himself. Adversarial countries could blackmail recruited American spies, who would then believe themselves in too deep for rescue. Enemy spy handlers would encourage the pathetic spy in this belief. He might have seen no other way out than suicide. Generally, the counterintelligence interest is only to confirm there wasn’t a deeper espionage motive. Then the investigators back off, allowing normal law enforcement and medical professionals to continue. This protocol must be written down, and briefed, to all cleared personnel. (It also helps to remind the cleared listeners there is always a way out of espionage!)

What to do when you discover unsecured classified information

What were the ‘government items’ found in the dumpster? If your security manager heard of this, what would he do? Would he know what to do? Hopefully, he would have had protocols in place beforehand. We know standard practices: classified trash must be shredded; components must be physically destroyed. Add to this a visit to your sanitation team’s headquarters. Advise them on what to do should they come across such items in the dumpster. Make it a matter of public knowledge. We accomplished this by briefing our local police officials–who are usually the first notified—of whom and how to contact us for retrieval and disposal.

These unusual circumstances can be prepared for. You can respond with diligence, written professional measures, and known step by step protocols if you know ahead of time such events can occur. Preparation, a list of appropriate contacts, procedures to take, and making these measures known in briefings preclude concerns later.

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John William Davis was commissioned an artillery officer and served as a counterintelligence officer and linguist. Thereafter he was counterintelligence officer for Space and Missile Defense Command, instructing the threat portion of the Department of the Army's Operations Security Course. Upon retirement, he wrote of his experiences in Rainy Street Stories.