Security clearances have sunset clauses

By David T. Jones on September 5, 2018

Washington, DC - A U.S. security clearance is a privilege, not a right.

But now we have a selection of once-upon-a-time senior officials squealing like stoats caught under a fence because their security clearances have ended.

This is viewed by the ever-hostile media as petty vengeance against critics of the Administration.

Having held a security clearance since I was a young Army intelligence lieutenant through the present, I have long recognized that clearance is contingent on circumstances.

A security clearance is accorded essentially on two criteria:  an investigation of the individual and “need to know.” 

An investigation may be brief and confined to a “national agency” check for a temporary employee (a summer intern) or, for a prospective full time employee, a highly detailed, time-consuming procedure requiring the applicant to complete multiple forms, disclose virtually all aspects of life, provide names of those who can vouch for the applicant’s integrity (other names are also solicited—not just those provided by the applicant), relationships with foreign nationals, and often a personal interview.  The assigned investigator(s) seek inter alia any evidence of alcoholism, drug abuse, financial irregularity (nonpayment of taxes, living above one’s means), abusive treatment of family members.  If problems are identified during the course of the interviews, the investigator must resume from the beginning.  Although most detailed security clearance cases proceed uneventfully, it is a slow process.  The entire examination is repeated at regular intervals to assure that nothing in the individual’s background has changed during the intervening period.

The other element of security is “need to know.”  Regardless, of the level of your permitted access to material, e.g., Top Secret, if you have no need to know the intelligence information, you should not be accorded access to it.  Thus, there are “handling” restrictions, e.g., Limited Distribution (LIMDIS); Exclusive Distribution (EXDIS); and No Distribution (NODIS) to restrict the distribution to information regardless of the official level of clearance that an individual might have.  There is Restricted Data dealing with nuclear weapons.  And NATO has its own series of classifications that require detailed personal reviews/”need to know.”  Moreover, there is “Sensitive Compartmented Information” that may be obtained through sources and methods that cannot be revealed—regardless of the level of security clearance that an individual may hold, unless the individual also has a “need to know.”

Under normal employment procedures upon leaving an agency where a security clearance is necessary for most normal work, e.g., State Department, CIA, DIA, NSA, an individual has an “out briefing” during which the security clearance is officially terminated.  In some instances, an individual may retain a “clearance” (until it expires for not having been renewed) with the expectation of future classified work at the original agency, and such individuals may also work for private groups, e.g., “Beltway Bandits” that are providing analyses, assistance, support to intelligence agencies.  In those cases, a security clearance may be renewed and access permitted to specific information on a “need to know” basis depending on the project on which the individual is working.

Traditionally, very senior officials in previous administrations have retained high security clearances on the rationale that some member of the current administration might wish to discuss classified material with them.

But again, this has been a courtesy rather than a “right.”  And the courtesy has been abused.  One may remember the case of Sandy Berger, Clinton Administration National Security Advisor, who stole and destroyed classified documents from the National Archives in 2003.  The documents reportedly referenced recommendations for security against al Qaeda action in the United States that the Clinton Administration never implemented.

Without belaboring the point, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could easily have her security clearance revoked as a consequence of the manner in which she handled email during her tenure as Secretary.  Certainly, that would be the case for a normal foreign service officer.

Moreover, the issue of retaining a clearance to be able to “consult” with a predecessor is a canard.  Although probably not “never,” one can honestly wonder just how frequently a successor consults a predecessor—particularly one from another party.  And, frankly, a senior official can consult with another former senior official either by instantly “declassifying” a particular piece of information (and then subsequently reclassifying it), simply discussing a topic with the individual to solicit their views, or instantly giving the individual a security clearance commensurate with the material to be discussed. 

So we are viewing another tedious teapot tempest, essentially meaning nothing substantive.

David Taylor Jones was former Senior Counselor at the American Embassy in Ottawa


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