Do Ambassadors Need Security Clearances?

Security Clearance pompeo

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is sworn-in by Vice President Mike Pence at the U.S. Department of State. As former CIA director, Pompeo already had a security clearance, but still needed to be confirmed by the Senate. (Photo Credit: Dept. of State.)

Before planning for that new job overseas as a U.S. ambassador there is the little matter of obtaining security clearance. This is true whether the individual is a career diplomat, including a State Department Foreign Service Officer, or a political appointee. Security clearance is still required in either case.

The State Department runs its own personnel security program and the process averages about 120 days to complete. However, the Department of State has recently initiated a goal to render security clearance decisions within 90 days. This process, which is conducted by the Office of Personnel Security, Suitability, Bureau of Diplomatic Security, includes a credit history check. In addition, the Diplomatic Security investigators (who are located worldwide) also conduct all other investigative leads. This will include local law enforcement checks.

In some cases members of the family and other close individuals are subject to a security check – this can include a spouse or other cohabitant that involves the mutual assumption of marital rights, duties and obligations.

what are the security Clearance criteria for ambassadors?

There are numerous reasons why an individual – even one named as an ambassador – could be denied a security clearance. Among the most important factors during the investigation process are the individual’s honesty, candor, and thoroughness in the completion of the security clearance forms. Each case is individually assessed utilizing the National Security Board’s 13 Adjudicative Guidelines, which can determine the granting or continuing of eligibility for a security clearance and if it is consistent with the interests of national security.

The State Department has noted that the adjudicative guidelines include: allegiance to the United States; foreign influence; foreign preference; sexual behavior; personal conduct; financial considerations; alcohol consumption; drug involvement; emotional, mental, and personality disorders; criminal conduct; security violations; outside activities; and misuse of information technology systems.

“Consistent with national security guidelines and to ensure the integrity of its workforce, the Department of State has authority to investigate and adjudicate security clearances for Department personnel whose position requires access to classified information‎,” said a State Department spokesperson. “The Department of State conducts background investigations and security clearance adjudications on individuals who are under consideration for employment including those whose appointment will need confirmation by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, such as an Ambassadorship to include career and non-career ambassador candidates.”

The exact investigative requirements for candidates requiring Senate confirmation are defined by the White House, and requirements for access to classified information are defined in Executive Order 12968 and Security Executive Agent Directive (SEAD) 4: National Security Adjudicative Guidelines (effective 08 June 2017).‎

“The Department of State conducts the background investigation and security clearance adjudication for Department of State political appointees to include senior staff and Ambassadors, other than the Secretary of State,” add the State Department.

HoW Are Requirements Different for Political appointees?

What is also worth understanding is the difference between those career ambassadors and those political appointees. The former are typically State Department Foreign Service Officers who have progressed to the level of ambassador and – therefore by default – have a security clearance that is based on their respective position prior to being appointed to ambassador.

The political appointees are those individuals who are close associates with the President, and can include large donors to the presidential campaign, or have shown other loyalty that is rewarded with the appointment to ambassador. These individuals do not generally come to their new position with prior clearance and instead must go through the typical clearance process.

Should something significant be discovered that could result in the denial of clearance those individuals often remove themselves from consideration, thus avoiding any potential embarrassment of being refused clearance.

Some ambassadors have faced other hurdles in taking on their new position. Most notably there is John Bolton, a career diplomat who now serves as National Security Advisor of the United States under President Trump, who had served as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations from August 2005 to December 2006. A recess appointee by President George W. Bush, Bolton was forced to resign because he was unlikely to win confirmation from the then newly-elected Democratic-party-majority Senate.

Even Ambassadors aren’t untouchable

And it isn’t impossible for ambassadors to lose their clearance once they’re on the job. One of the most notable examples is Martin Indyk, who served twice as the United States Ambassador to Israel.

Indyk was placed under FBI investigations in 2000 after allegations arose that he had improperly handled sensitive material by using an unclassified laptop computer on an airplane flight. There was no indication that any classified material was compromised and no indication of espionage, but in the end Indyk was still the first serving U.S. ambassador to be stripped of government security clearance.

The suspension meant that Indyk had to be escorted inside the State Department building, was denied access to classified information and was even forbidden from attending meetings where classified information was discussed. It was a blow to Indyk’s career as he had been very active in the Middle East peace process and all aspects of the peace negotiations were classified.

want to be an ambassador? bear this in mind.

Moreover, while having or obtaining the requisite clearance is necessary to become an ambassador knowing the local language apparently isn’t as important. Presidents from both parties have been known to make political appointees to those who are quick to admit they’re not exactly “experts” on the nations in which they will be posted. Former Senator Max Baucus, D-Montana, served as the 11th United States Ambassador to China couldn’t even speak Chinese, but then neither could then-future President George H.W. Bush, who also served in the same role.

Finally, knowing a bit about the country – even if you don’t speak the language – can go a long way during the Senate confirmation process. George Tsunis, a businessman and lawyer who raised $988,550 for President Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012, was chastised for not knowing that Norway doesn’t have a president and that its Progress Party was part of the coalition government, rather than a “fringe element” as he described them. The wait for confirmation went on for an unprecedented 23 months, before he finally withdrew his nomination. Fortunately the next appointment Sam Heins was able to get through the process a bit quicker.

Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com.

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