Senator questions Navy about intel chief who still has no security clearance

A member of the Senate Intelligence Committee filed a series of queries to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus on Thursday about why two Navy admirals have been serving in top intelligence posts for more than two years without having active security clearances.

Among the questions posed by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.): How has the officers’ inability to access classified information impacted the Navy’s cybersecurity and intelligence efforts? Why are they allowed to remain in sensitive posts when uncleared rank-and-file workers could never dream of doing so? And what has the Navy done to rectify the situation?

As Federal News Radio reported in August 2014, Vice Adm. Ted “Twig” Branch and Rear Adm. Bruce Loveless’ clearances have been suspended ever since their names came up as part of the Justice Department’s wide-ranging  investigation into a bribery scandal involving the southeast Asian ship husbanding company Glenn Defense Marine Asia.

Among several other titles, Branch is the director of naval intelligence. Loveless is currently one of his deputies in the Navy’s office of information dominance. Neither has ever been accused of any wrongdoing, but the Navy has withheld their access to classified information until the DoJ investigation is finished.

“I do not question the admirals’ character or make any judgment about their dedication to serving our nation, but I am concerned about the extremely unusual circumstance of having uncleared people in key roles within the intelligence community for an inordinately lengthy time period,” Warner wrote in a letter to Mabus. “I am concerned about the impact that the admirals’ continued presence in these roles while lacking a clearance might have on the Navy’s operational effectiveness.”

The “lengthy period” is now so long that Warner’s concerns may be moot at this point. Branch’s security clearance was pulled back in November 2013, just four months after he was appointed to his current job. Considering that his two immediate predecessors only served two years in the post before retiring, it would  be entirely normal for Branch to depart the military any day now after 37 years of service.

Indeed, President Barack Obama nominated his replacement last September. But confirmation proceedings for his successor, Rear Adm. Elizabeth Train, have been stuck in the Senate Armed Services Committee ever since.

The Navy said that during the more than two years during which Branch has been unable to see classified materials, intelligence matters requiring security clearances have been handled by his civilian deputy.

Branch is also the Navy’s chief information officer, although most day-to-day IT management issues are handled by Janice Haith, the deputy Department of the Navy CIO. But Branch has continued to play an active and visible role in Navy networks, including most recently launching the service’s Navy Cybersecurity campaign.

Navy officials have previously expressed frustration at the pace of the DoJ investigation and cited the ongoing criminal probe as the reason for its withholding of Branch and Loveless’ clearances.

But there’s no immediate indication of when the investigation will end.

On Friday, a federal judge sentenced a Navy officer to three years and four months in prison for sending classified information on ship movements and schedules to GDMA in exchange for cash, hotel stays, iPads and prostitutes. Lt. Cmdr. Todd Dale Malaki accepted the sentence after a plea bargain with federal prosecutors.

Leonard Francis, GDMA’s CEO , was convicted one year ago on bribery charges and is awaiting sentencing. Besides Malaki, federal prosecutors have charged seven others in the case, including other Navy officers who they said conspired with Francis to steer ships toward ports that his company controlled and where he ultimately extracted tens of millions in excessive fees to berth Navy vessels.

While the Justice Department’s case drags on, any connection to Branch and Loveless remains extremely oblique. Branch served for a time as the top commander of a carrier strike group operating in the Pacific during the period the bribes were happening; Loveless served in numerous senior posts in the western Pacific at the same time, but DoJ has never alleged that either had any knowledge of the bribery operation.

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