Earlier this month Tony Clement, a Canadian lawmaker who was on a parliamentary committee with access to national security intelligence, admitted that he had been the target of two extortion attempts. Clement, who was subsequently removed from the opposition Conservative caucus following this disclosure, also acknowledged that the extortion threat came about from inappropriate online relationships with more than one woman.

Clement, who was also a former cabinet minister, choose to remain on the Canadian Parliament’s national-security and intelligence committee despite knowing for several months that others likely knew about his online behavior. The lawmaker also admitted that the extortion attempts were made by “foreign actors.”

Extortion and blackmail remain a very real concern for clearance holders, and there are numerous instances where a security clearance holder could be the subject of such threats. These can include a child conceived out of wedlock, a hidden sexual orientation, infidelity, massive debt or undisclosed criminal conduct.

Why Secrets are Bad for Your security clearance

Keeping these or other secrets puts security holders at risk of blackmail by foreign intelligence agencies or criminal organizations. Anything that could be a risk should be reported, but keeping a secret is far from the worst thing that can happen.

“It is incumbent upon a security clearance holder to immediately report to his security officer and/or supervisor any extortion threats; no exceptions,” said Bradley P. Moss, partner at the Law Offices of Mark S.  Zaid, P.C. “You report the threat and comply with the instructions given at that point.”

Sextortion and Other Online Threats

A growing threat that the Military Times first reported on back in 2016 involves “sextortion.” Seemingly innocent online encounters can turn into something less than innocent if nude photos are shared.

In these cases it is often small time criminals looking to blackmail naïve individuals for small amounts of money, but these extortion threats are just as serious. The worst thing to do is to pay the blackmailer.

“Under no circumstances should the individual comply with the threat in order to simply save their own skin,” Moss told ClearanceJobs. “Clearance holders are held to a higher standard of personal responsibility and are expected to inform the government immediately of the issue.”

Obviously, the government prefers that clearance holders self-report any potential blackmail exposure, such as an illicit affair or owing money to unsavory characters, Moss added. The guidelines for self-reporting are outlined in a recently updated directive.

The sad truth is that most people do not do so. Trying to hide such behaviors only makes the situation worse – because the individual put himself/herself in a compromising situation but then tried to conceal it.

“If the government learns of it on their own, it’s a major red flag and is likely to result in a review of the person’s continued eligibility for access to classified information – including the possibility of that eligibility being revoked,” explained Moss.

While some actions are quite serious – notably hiding past criminal behavior – others that are more moral in nature, such as having an affair, should be reported before these become a bigger problem. A bomb once exploded can’t really do much more harm in other words.

“It is one of those situations where self-reporting and admitting to the problem upfront, before any potential blackmail threat is ever made,” said Moss, “might be personally embarrassing but ultimately is far more manageable from a long-term standpoint.”

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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.