The continued push by Congress to screen for white supremacists and extremists in the background investigation process could give the necessary steam to move forward with social media screening of security clearance applicants. Congresswoman Jackie Speier (CA-14), Chair of the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee, sent a letter to the Department of Defense, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and White House last week, calling on them to issue new policies and executive orders to further vet candidates for military and national security positions.
Social media screening has been on the table since Security Executive Agent Directive 5 was issued five years ago. It opened the door for cyber vetting for be a part of the security clearance background investigation process. While the policy door was opened, government agencies still haven’t cracked the nut on how to handle social media as a part of the background investigation process. One of the biggest factors is establishing what is authentic, which accounts to track, and what is truly adverse information. A 2009 study by ODNI on intelligence agency applicants found adverse information on 28% of applicants using social media screening – whether those issues were false flags or actual issues was one of the bigger hurdles, along with the costs.
Congresswoman Speier’s letter leaves nothing to chance and deep fakes, and requests “directing all relevant agencies to update the background investigation process to incorporate a review of social media information to identify white-supremacist or violent-extremist ties. This would involve, at a minimum, updating the Office of Personnel Management’s Standard Form 86 to ask applicants for national security positions to disclose all social media platforms on which they participate and all social media handles used and to grant permission to share nonpublic social media information with investigators.”
Your Social Media Handles and Your Security Clearance
Speier isn’t the first member of congress to look to the security clearance process as an area of reform in the wake of a new Administration and in follow-up to the Capitol Hill riots. Rep. Stephanie Murphy proposed the ‘Security Clearance Improvement Act of 2021′ which would require changes to the security clearance application process to ask if applicants have attended ‘Stop the Steal’ events or ever been involved with the QAnon movement. Murphy’s legislation missed the mark in that it proposed legislative action that would need to be born out of executive orders. Speier’s proposal is one that could come to fruition, especially if the Biden Administration keeps its eyes on the security clearance process as a source of reform.
New executive orders aren’t needed to add social media and cyber vetting to the security clearance process, or to root out extremists and white supremacists. The current adjudicative guidelines cover both allegiance to the United States and criminal conduct. An individual posting threatening statements toward the government or government officials could be vetted under the current criteria – the issue is how. Speier’s legislation at least makes a practical suggestion which may aid the process – asking applicants to pony up their social media handles. But whether applicants – who are already undergoing a pretty intrusive background investigation process – would be willing to give their usernames and passwords over to the government is another story.
The Whole Person Concept
If you’re like me, the fact that the government could potentially see your college Facebook photos is a bit scary. But the good news is, if applied correctly, cyber vetting should still hold out against the whole person concept. If current trends are any indication, some form of cyber vetting is likely coming to a security clearance investigation near you. But the same (old) rules of time being a mitigating factor, and incidents being considered in the light of a totality of a person’s character will apply. But, if you’re like me and sarcasm rolls of of your tongue like a native language, you’d better save it for your happy hour friends, and keep it off your social media feeds. Your security clearance may depend on it.