In only the last couple of years our country has witnessed a spike in extremist elements on both the left and the right of the political spectrum. Most notably, this phenomenon has taken the form of Antifa (anti-fascists) and white nationalist movements, whose members engage in everything from violent protests to mass shootings.
With the proliferation of such ideologies, it is logical to assume that at some point a security clearance issue would arise involving a person who subscribes to one of these radical worldviews. One such case was recently publicized.
According to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch, Matthew Q. Gebert, while working as a foreign affairs officer for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Energy Resources, allegedly attended the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, published white nationalist propaganda online, hosted white nationalists at his Virginia home, and was involved with a chapter of a white nationalist organization in Washington, D.C.
Mr. Gebert’s position required an extensive background check in order to obtain a top secret security clearance. Part of that process required him to fill out the government’s detailed SF-86 form, which probes many aspects of a person’s life, including membership in organizations that promote terrorism or violence. And yet, despite this screening measure, Gebert was seemingly able to carry on with his radical activism and associations for years without being detected, while having access to sensitive and secret government information. The State Department recently suspended Mr. Gebert.
This case raises several important security clearance issues.
The LImitations of background checks
The first line of defense in assessing an applicant’s trustworthiness and character is a background check. As is standard practice, agency investigators interview people from applicants’ lives, and Gebert would have been no exception. Such people tend to be family members, former employers, colleagues, or friends. This kind of background investigation is done in order to determine an applicant’s character and trustworthiness, as well as to uncover any potential red flags which may exist which could compromise the applicant.
However, the background investigation process is not without its faults and limitations. For example, the State Department, like other government agencies, is jammed with a backlog of employee applications requiring security clearances. This creates pressure to conduct interviews quickly. It is unrealistic to expect an interviewer to catch every pitfall in a person’s history. Much of that depends on whom they interview, what topics are discussed, and how thoroughly the interview is conducted. There is also a measure of luck involved, insofar as the interviewer coming across some critical bit of information that would signal trouble.
Adding to the problem, white nationalist applicants and other radicals might tell the people whom are most likely to be interviewed to stay silent about the applicant’s beliefs, making it that much more difficult for an interviewer to uncover their extremist proclivities.
The takeaway is that while necessary, background checks may not be sufficient to uncover all applicants that harbor radical views.
What constitutes use of violence to overthrow the U.S. government?
Does a person’s affiliation with a racist organization equate with the SF-86’s definition of an organization “dedicated to the use of violence or force to overthrow the United States government?”
Both online and in private conversations with other white nationalists, Gebert spoke about his dream of creating a country for whites only. “[Whites] need a country of our own with nukes, and we will retake this thing lickety split.” “That’s all that we need. We need a country founded for white people with a nuclear deterrent. And you watch how the world trembles.”
Gebert made it clear that he was willing to sacrifice nearly everything in order to put his white nationalist ideology first. “There are bigger things than a career and a paycheck, and I don’t want to lose mine.” He continued, “I am prepared to lose mine, because this is the most important thing to me in my life … in tandem with my family, of course.”
As Tess Owen reported in her recent VICE News article: Given that his alleged involvement was largely contained to sharing racist, anti-Semitic memes across various social media accounts, recruitment, and hosting events at his home, it’s unlikely that his reported extremist activities would necessarily fall into the State Department’s SF-86 form definition of an organization “dedicated to the use of violence or force to overthrow the United States government.”
This type of situation poses a challenge to the United States government. The question being: at what point do you draw the line of what behavior constitutes belonging to an organization dedicated to the use of violence or force to overthrow the United States government? There is no bright line rule in this regard. It is a balance between the rights of the individual and the national security interests of the United States.
First Amendment Rights versus Personal Conduct and Outside Activities
Gebert, like every American, has a First Amendment right to express his deeply held beliefs. However, holding a security clearance is a privilege granted by the government, not a right. And the government may revoke or deny a clearance if it believes a clearance holder’s personal conduct or outside activities pose a risk or threat to the security of the United States. The tricky part from the government’s perspective is removing someone from a position based solely on their beliefs.
From 2015 to 2019, Gebert operated multiple Twitter accounts, which were used to interact with other white nationalists. Hatewatch was unable to pinpoint if during his workday at the State Department he posted about his white nationalist beliefs. However, it appears that content on those Twitter accounts was posted several times throughout the day.
Where does this leave the government in deciding whether to revoke or deny a security clearance from a government employee or contractor?
Consider the following hypotheticals. Suppose a clearance holder had kept his beliefs a secret and that someone had found out about those beliefs and was blackmailing him for secret information in order for the clearance holder to keep his position?
Or suppose that a clearance holder with intelligence about an imminent attack against a minority group in the U.S. suppressed that information because he wanted to see that group harmed?
Beyond these scenarios, holding these kinds of beliefs would make it difficult, if not impossible to work as part of a team of multi-ethnic intelligence professionals that depend on teamwork to make a mission succeed and protect the United States.
What is to be done?
This is the challenge. What can be done to address it? For starters, people involved with the investigation and granting of security clearances need to be cognizant that this kind of problem exists. Second, the government should consider allocating more resources to our overburdened security clearance investigative system in order to weed out potential problems early on before they become embedded in our government. Finally, attorneys and administrative courts need to be prepared to address the First Amendment and national security issues these types of cases will raise, taking into account the fact dependent nature of each case.