Some are calling on Virginia Governor Ralph Northam to resign after photos surfaced from his medical school yearbook, which appeared to show him either dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe or in blackface. For his part, Northam said he isn’t in the photo, but did say that he wore blackface as he dressed up like pop star Michael Jackson for a party.
The subject matter of the photo has been called racists by many, as is the practice of wearing blackface. Ironically one of those who called for Northam’s resignation was Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who then himself admitted to wearing blackface when he dressed up as his “favorite rapper” Kurtis Blow at a college party.
Northam, who served as Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor from 2014-2018, had received strong support from fellow Democrats including former President Barack Obama during last year’s hotly contested election. The release of the photos, as well as the disclosure from Herring, serves as a reminder that past missteps and indiscretions can often come out at the most inappropriate time.
Skeletons in the Closet
Everyone likely has done something they wish they hadn’t – whether it was saying the wrong thing or as these incidents suggest, using bad judgment when picking a costume. However, while distasteful and even offensive, what Northam and Herring did wasn’t illegal – so is it something that should be disclosed during a security clearance investigation?
Could the wearing of blackface, or something equally offensive, derail a candidate’s ability to secure clearance? If it came up it could make an employer question hiring that person, but it wouldn’t be something that would be an issue for the actual clearance.
“Clearance assessments don’t work quite like that, generally speaking,” said Bradley P. Moss, an attorney specializing in security clearance related matters at the Law Offices of Mark Zaid. “Most people are only going to be asked to disclose information that falls within the strict parameters of the Standard Form 86.”
Those conducting the background check are unlikely to comb through old yearbooks looking for damning evidence, in other words.
“The agencies will pull your credit history and run a check in the national criminal database, but those are documented things,” Moss told ClearanceJobs.
“Unless someone is interviewed during the course of the background investigation – friend, colleague, supervisor, neighbor, etc. – that provides concerning information about you that was not somethingy ou already disclosed on the SF86, your security interview with the investigator will typically be confined to your answers on the SF86 and any investigative lines of inquiry that are derived from those narrow sets of issues,” Moss added.
As noted, everyone probably has done something they regret, and while it may not be brought up by a security clearance investigator, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be discovered by an employer. Should derogatory information come up during the hiring process, the best thing to do may be to come clean. As Tom Clancy’s character Jack Ryan advised a fictional president: “It’s no sense in defusing a bomb after it’s already it’s already gone off.”
Security Clearance Concern
Where past lapses in judgment could be a concern is if it’s something which could expose an individual to blackmail or extortion.
“It all depends on whether the behavior can turn you into an asset for enemies of the State,” explained Daniel P. Meyer, partner at the Tully Rinckey Law Firm.
“Federal employees privileged with a security clearance are held to a standard of behavior established by the President through the Director of National Intelligence,” Meyer told ClearanceJobs. “If you have engaged in personal conduct which could be used to leverage you into leaking classified information, then you need to self-report to your security officer to remove, for instance, the blackmail liability of wearing blackface.”
Those individuals who have to submit to a full-scope or “lifestyle” polygraph examination may also want to disclose such past actions as well.
“This tends to be limited more to people being considered for SCI access, and even then it depends partially on the agency at issue – the CIA uses it relentlessly – and the nature of your position,” said Moss.
“In a lifestyle polygraph examination, it is more likely you’ll be asked very broad and vague questions, such as whether you have ever done anything that would make you uncomfortable if other people knew about it,” he added.
Thus that could include bad judgment like dressing up as Michael Jackson or Kurtis Blow for a party, even if it was done decades ago.
“This is where a lot of people tend to get tripped up on things and end up admitting to viewing questionable pornography, but usually they’re just paranoid and what they saw was perfectly legal; or getting ‘happy endings’ from female masseuses regarding whose citizenship status they’re not sure,” noted Moss.
“In that situation, something like having worn ‘blackface’ in college or medical school could theoretically come up and be discussed,” Moss added. “That said, in my 12 years of practice, I have never seen blackface raised as an issue in any clearance case.”