Weird security clearance denial derails federal techie

Ashkan Soltani presents one of the stranger federal personnel cases in recent months. Whistleblowers across government are engaged in lawsuits and Office of Special Counsel actions. Veterans Affairs executives are demoted then de-demoted. Bribery, hacking and email account offenses surface almost daily. Now the earnest Soltani has been escorted to the door of the West Wing after a single promising month on the job. He’d failed to receive his security clearance, a denial ostensibly originating deep within an apparatus that grinds and groans as it spits out thumbs up or down.

Federal database matching is generally flawed, with lots of false positives and negatives. But Soltani wasn’t just working as a programmer in some defense contractor. The noted cybersecurity expert was supposed to be an advisor to Megan Smith, the federal chief technology officer.

Feverish speculation in the tech trade press says Soltani was fingered for his work in 2014 at the Washington Post, which a couple of years ago published a series of articles on privacy. It relied heavily on documents that had been released by the Edward Snowden. For the intelligence and national security community, Snowden is, understandably, synonymous with Benedict Arnold. Toxic. But it’s not as if Soltani released the documents. He simply lent expertise to a comprehensive treatment of what they meant in the context of the government’s relationship to its citizens.

True to 21st century gestalt, Soltani let the world know of his dismissal by tweeting it, and was rejoined by a chorus of sympathetic tweets.

Adding to the strangeness is that Soltani had spent a year as chief technology officer at the Federal Trade commission — this after a private sector gambit in which he exposed security flaws caused by online advertising networks. That work led to legislative changes. It moved Soltani into the ranks of a certain class of young, West Coast geeks of which the Obama administration is so enamored.

If the White House vetted and hired Soltani, it could not have known or expected his security clearance would not come through. Above all, presidential personnel operations are aimed at avoiding embarrassment to an administration. Anyone who becomes a negative distraction for any reason is cut loose in a hurry. 

That leaves one of two possibilities.

Either there is something awful in Soltani’s past that only came to light in his security clearance investigation — I admit that’s far-fetched — or the national security establishment decided to get even-by-proxy, denying a plum job to someone who had benefited in a highly public way from the Snowden treachery.

Maybe a third possibility exists: simple mistaken identity. Could there be a second Ashkan Soltani with the same date of birth who committed a felony?

I doubt we’ll ever know. I doubt Soltani will ever know. One knowledgeable person I talked to says there’s no use in speculating; the plumbing runs too deep. I’m speculating anyway. To me the speed of the returned verdict points to the second possibility, revenge by the intelligence community. Soltani was only in the White House a month before the clearance denial. I talked to one former White House staff member who says it took two years before he was cleared — to eat in the fabled White House mess.

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