Holding the Government Accountable

Clearance and Present Danger

DC is aflutter with whispers and talk about security clearances. In recent days, several news media outlets including the Los Angeles Times and Newsweek have wondered aloud whether Karl Rove's security clearance is in jeopardy. The White House stoked the fires with mandatory sessions for all staff to brush up on ethics which started yesterday. This may help to draw attention to the fact that security clearances can be suspended under the most Orwellian or simply ridiculous circumstances. According to the LA Times: “An employee of the Defense Department had her clearance suspended for months because a jilted boyfriend called to say she might not be reliable.”

More sinister are the examples where security clearances are suspended or revoked in order to silence or retaliate against a whistleblower. In a floor speech a few weeks ago, Representative Curt Weldon (R-PA) described the situation with the most prominent of the Able Danger whistleblowers: “So what has happened to Lieutenant Colonel Shaffer, Mr. Speaker? The Defense Intelligence Agency has lifted his security clearance. One day before he was to testify before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, in uniform, they permanently removed his security clearance.” Today Representative Weldon holds another press conference which will include information about: “the latest efforts by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) to smear Able Danger member Lt. Col. Shaffer who broke the silence about the Pentagon's efforts to track al-Qaeda worldwide prior to September 11.”

Or consider the case of Don Van Winkle. Winkle's security clearance was suspended after he informed the Defense Department that his facility had not fixed systems that monitor for leaks of deadly nerve agents. These monitoring systems were malfunctioning--putting the employees and the surrounding community at risk.

In August, a group of 40 State Department employees even protested their security clearance suspensions publicly, disgusted by years of waiting for some resolution to their cases. According to the Washington Post, a 29-year State Department veteran diplomat has been waiting three years for a decision on his security clearance which was suspended simply because he got a divorce. Two of the employees detailed their harrowing experience anonymously in Foreign Service Journal in September.

Security clearances are one area where agencies essentially have carte blanche to do as they please. Although there are typically review procedures set up internally, without the option of seeking an independent enforceable opinion outside of their agency, employees are at the mercy of their employer.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee recognized this problem and passed legislation earlier this year to protect whistleblowers from security clearance retaliation, noting in their report: “the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, whistleblowers in several high profile cases have come forward to disclose government waste, fraud, and abuse that posed a risk to national security. However, several of these individuals faced retaliatory action through means against which the employees lacked protection--the removal of their security clearance.” When the House Government Reform Committee marked up the same legislation, Chairman Tom Davis, deleted the security clearance provision and, very cynically, replaced it with a request for a Government Accountability Office study. Davis, who can order a GAO study at the drop of a hat at any time as Chairman of the Committee, clearly wanted to make it look like he was doing something, when in actuality he was just stalling.