“In physical security, things generally stay where you put them. People are different.” – Peregrine Russell-Hunter, Director of Defense Office of Hearing and Appeals (DOHA)

DOHA Director Russell-Hunter walked NSI IMPACT 2023 conference attendees through updates and security concerns that impact security clearance holders. People might think of DOHA as the place an industrial contractor case must go before a security clearance denial or revocation can take place, and that is true. But Russell-Hunter shared his personal contact information with a packed room of security professionals, noting that everyone on the team is ready to support facility security officers (FSO)s and clearance holders. He also noted that you can always check the DOHA website to see how the thousands of industrial contractor clearance cases DOHA decides every year are decided and how DOHA AJs apply the adjudication guidelines. While names and any personally identifying information are always redacted, so nobody can tell who the decision is about, Russell-Hunter noted that DOHA always shows its work. People who read the decisions can see how the AJs decided them. He noted that this is just part of DOHA’s culture of transparency.

Fighting Insider Threat with Employee Assistance Programs

Since the beginning of 2020, every day concerns have increased. Russell-Hunter noted that it’s even more important for organizations to not just offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) but also to make sure that employees know about them. With Continuous Vetting (CV) in place, more information is available electronically from databases and sources. Financial problems still remain at the top of the list of CV hits today. Russell-Hunter emphasized the importance of developing a culture where people can come and talk to you about problems before they get worse.

Russell-Hunter shared, “When employees come to you with a problem, that’s a good thing.” It’s important that people understand how to follow the rules AND understand the value of self reporting. And it all comes down to understanding the “why” behind the rules.

Russell-Hunter said “When you create a culture where people are willing to come forward, it’s an opportunity to do some good. You can front load the facts about an employee’s mitigation efforts into an incident report or a security form. For example, if you learn that an employee has reportable financial problem, you can front load what the circumstances were that led to the debts and the steps the employee is taking to deal with the debts. If you catch a problem early enough, it doesn’t have to become an eligibility issue. Plus you’ve also sent out a message that you care about your people.”

Sending the message that you care about people is a factor in combating insider threat. A main cause of insider threat is disgruntlement. When employees feel like you don’t care about them, they can shift to being an insider threat, impacting your organization and national security. Often, those threats can be avoided.


Understanding the role of social media and extremism in security clearance determinations is a topic impacting security professionals today. Russell-Hunter acknowledged that, but pointed out that DNI’s Security Executive Agent Directive (SEAD) 5 is simply about the government’s ability to look at relevant publicly-available information. He agreed that violent extremism is one of the big challenges facing us all, but noted that identifying it and acting on it should not be confused with interfering with anyone’s free speech rights. He pointed out that people can have whatever political views they want. What is a security issue is when a person is acting on violent extreme views. He gave the example of two cleared men who were rioters in Charlottesville in 2017 who posted text and videos online bragging about the violent criminal assaults they had committed there. SEAD 5 exists to enable the federal government to use relevant publicly available information to make adjudications of security clearance eligibility based on the most complete and accurate information possible.

Violent extremism is different from free speech. It’s important to be able to tell the difference between someone who has strong feelings and someone who might act on those strong feelings in a violent manner.

Policy Changes Over Time

Russell-Hunter discussed the role that the Personnel Security Research Center (PERSEREC) plays in improving the security clearance process. He noted that the team of social scientists there uses independent research to support personnel security policy. In fact, changes that have been made to Question 21 (the mental health question) on the current Standard Form (SF)-86 were derived from PERSEREC research. It was PERSEREC that identified the six diagnoses that correlate with risk and that are currently specified in the question. Question 21 has been reformed and narrowed in scope to reduce stigma associated with seeking help. Previously, Question 21 asked for almost all treatment and counseling, and now it has been narrowed to focus on real risk. The forthcoming Personnel Vetting Form (PVQ) will combine the current SF 86, SF 85P, and SF 85, and the PVQ will continue the reform trend of reducing any stigma about getting treatment that could be inadvertently caused by Question 21.

Russell-Hunter reminded security professionals that it’s a good thing for clearance holders to seek treatment. The mental health portion of the questionnaire had been commonly misunderstood with the unintended result that seeking mental health treatment was stigmatized. But he pointed out that the national policy since 1995 has been that no negative conclusions can be made based solely on seeking mental health counseling and that seeking such counseling can be a positive factor in clearance eligibility determinations.

He concluded by saying that there’s a lot that goes into making a whole person decision and that the government wants to make such decisions based on the most complete and accurate information possible. FSOs can help by ensuring that incidents are reported and that mitigation is forwarded promptly.


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Jillian Hamilton has worked in a variety of Program Management roles for multiple Federal Government contractors. She has helped manage projects in training and IT. She received her Bachelors degree in Business with an emphasis in Marketing from Penn State University and her MBA from the University of Phoenix.