An outside look at security-clearance process, reveals some flaws

Last spring, when a Air National Guard member was found to leak secrets on the Discord app, it raised questions about how he got and kept his security clearance. Raw Story reporter Alexandria Jacobson spent three months looking at the security-clearance and found quite a few flaws. Federal Drive with Tom Temin talked to her about it.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin And as your story points out, the clearance process is undergoing a kind of lengthy transformation. A few years ago, it moved out of the Office of Personnel Management and back to the Defense Department. They’re trying to build a new system to report it, continuous monitoring and all these things. And these have been reported by GAO. What were you looking at and what did you find that we may not know about security clearance?

Alexandria Jacobson So as you mentioned, back in April, as I’m sure everyone remembers, when the leak happened out of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, with the low level airmen Jack Teixeira. That really just prompted us to look at how could someone like that get through the vetting system and fall through the cracks. So around that time, we actually came across a report from clearance jobs that surveyed facilities, security officers who are responsible for tracking people with security clearances. And what that report showed was as much as 28% of the people surveyed their companies, their agencies, these contractors were still tracking people with consumer grade spreadsheets. So very unsecured practices. And even worse, as much as 2% were using pen and paper. So that was shocking to us to hear in 2023 that people who have access to our nation’s secrets, their information is not being held in a secure way. So that was really the impetus for the story. And we wanted to confirm that this is actually happening. Where is this happening? And so indeed, we were able to, through the three month investigation on Raw Story, really talk to a lot of folks in the government currently, former employees, national security experts who said that this is indeed still a problem that happens. It tends to happen at the local federal agency level as well as with contractors. So this, the government trusted workforce 2.0. As you mentioned, this reform effort is certainly making strides to have a more consolidated system that everyone is using to vet and track their security cleared personnel. But where the breakdown seems to still be happening is that local level, smaller contractors might have additional internal systems that they’re using that the government isn’t privy to track folks with security clearances.

Tom Temin Sure. In the case of Teixeira, I guess on a technical standpoint, he passed all of the tests that are in place to get security clearance. He was American. He didn’t have any foreign ties, but there were clues to his nature that might have been found in other means, which we understood was supposed to be part of this total look at someone, which is I guess he posted odd stuff on social media that no one picked up.

Alexandria Jacobson That’s right. And so definitely we started the investigation looking at these old school practices. And then as I talked with experts, we learned about some other areas that are missing in the system. So publicly available online information or social media is not regularly and consistently used in the vetting process. So as you just referenced with Teixeira, he had, you know, after the fact reporting came out that he had frequently posted about violence, racist beliefs, mistrust of the government, which certainly would be a red flag for someone going for a security clearance for their job. So when I talked to the government, they told me that indeed, since 2016, there is the option to be able to investigate someone’s publicly available information, but it’s just not consistently enforced. So some agencies might do it across the board, some might not do it at all, and others might do it just if something gets flagged. And then with the new reform effort Trusted Workforce 2.0, a big part of that is called continuous vetting. So that means that there’s an automated process where once someone has a clearance, their information is being run against public records, arrest reports, credit reports, etc. but that does not include social media. Currently, it’s a very manual process that’s tedious and isn’t included in that process.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Alexandria Jacobson. She’s an investigative reporter with the Raw Story site. And then I guess maybe you probably found also that the criteria might need to be updated because someone who could be racist or someone who could be a communist or something. I mean, you know, we’ve got the Chelsea Manning case going back a number of years. Those aren’t well, maybe communism is, but a lot of those things are not specifically prohibited for someone getting security clearance on the justification that, well, it doesn’t matter what they think privately, as long as they don’t give up secrets. And it sounds like there’s a disconnect between perhaps what people might think and their propensity to violate their clearance that they’ve been granted.

Alexandria Jacobson Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, and in reality, experts, the government says it’s hard to predict, you know, every single person that might be a bad actor or someone that. They can have their private thoughts and are they actually going to act on it? From what I’ve learned in my reporting is that by not including this publicly available information in the search that could tip off the government to people that might actually act on these beliefs. That’s a really big red flag and potential information that the government is missing out on.

Tom Temin Plus, it still takes a long time to get security clearance. And both agencies and contractors say they need people to just continue the work of the government. That’s an ongoing issue also.

Alexandria Jacobson Absolutely. Back in 2017, there was a backlog of investigation processes that took as much as 2 to 3 years for someone to get a clearance. So that has certainly much improved, but it still definitely takes months. People looking for clearances need to fill out a 100 plus page form. It’s a really intensive process. And as with much of the experts I talked to said there is still a talent problem with having enough people to vet those that need security clearances. So there’s definitely a bit of that tension there as well to making sure there’s enough folks that can do the actual process of checking folks thoroughly and quickly.

Tom Temin And I want to get back to the attitudes and expressed views of people, because I imagine the government people that you spoke with mentioned the same thing, that what is it that should disqualify you from security clearance, even though it might be repugnant in some other domain? Should that be a disqualifier, provided you’ll keep a secret? Well, if you’re a bigot, so what? I mean, not to justify bigotry, but that question needs to be answered, doesn’t it?

Alexandria Jacobson Yeah, absolutely. And I think in general, the government says they won’t touch password protected information. That’s certainly a line they won’t cross. And if people with security clearances I spoke to, some don’t feel comfortable with having their social media evaluated in in the process. And I and I think that that’s certainly a common concern. But it seems that there needs to be a more consistent and clear way of evaluating this information and what would disqualify someone. So as we spoke about those, I think it’s the major red flags that when people talk about wanting to exercise violence and mistrust of the government and things like that.

Tom Temin Sure. I guess if you are willing to post those kinds of things about yourself on social media, you might kind of have an exhibitionist tendency to begin with. And then when you get hold of federal secrets, we’ve really got something to share at that point. That line could be drawn too, I suppose.

Alexandria Jacobson Absolutely. And you know, my colleague Jordan Green did a report on someone who was a neo-Nazi, who was in the Marine Corps and had classified documents saved on his computer. So, again, that’s someone that you certainly would think should not have a security clearance and you would hope would have been caught in the vetting process as well.

Tom Temin And what kind of reaction did you get to the story?

Alexandria Jacobson There’s been a lot of interest, I think, just in the general public. Some of this information just is very much not transparent or readily available. So I think people are interested to learn about how the vetting process, the complications of it, the lack of consistency in some areas. And so, yeah, so it’s been really surprising, especially to say on the old school practices, to just don’t care that there are contractors and local agencies using pen and paper is pretty shocking in this day and age.

Tom Temin And not too many reporters are interested in the arcana of government operation, but arcane as they might be, they still have a big effect on national security or many other public life factors.

Alexandria Jacobson Absolutely. And yeah, this is very, very important information. And the folks that I spoke with, you know, unfortunately this they predict that this was going to happen again. And so it’s just really trying to get a grasp on are the reform efforts doing enough? Where are the holes, making sure that they’re they’re being attended to.

Tom Temin Alexandria Jacobson is a reporter with Raw Story. Thanks so much for joining me.

Alexandria Jacobson Thanks so much for having me.

Tom Temin And we’ll post this interview with federal News network dot com slash Federal Drive. Subscribe to the Federal Drive wherever you get your podcasts.

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