Readers speak out on the TSA, civil servants and security clearances

Joe Davidson
Columnist November 21, 2013

The Federal Diary gets lots of reader reaction via e-mail, snail mail and online posts. Some of it is fit to print. Occasionally, we give readers a chance to speak out by publishing their remarks, edited for clarity and length. Unfortunately, those who post comments online often don’t use their real or full names.

After the killing of Gerardo Hernandez, a Transportation Security Administration officer in Los Angeles, this reader responded to an American Federation of Government Employees suggestion to create a group of armed officers:

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Before the TSA decides it needs a larger and partially armed force at the airports, its management should read Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, “David and Goliath,” especially the last third of the book. Gladwell presents cases to demonstrate that larger and stronger are not always the best strategies. Intelligence and creative thinking can often achieve goals more efficiently. I am especially reminded of the quote on Page 201: “They say they are here to protect us. They’ll turn on us — you wait and see.”

That statement could apply to the TSA if, like the British army in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, the TSA begins to perceive that its need to protect itself outweighs its goal of protecting the public.

Charles Holliman, Alexandria

Security clearances

Security clearance issues have been getting a lot of attention lately, including in a recent column about a Government Accountability Office report calling for greater quality-control measures.

I read your column and wanted to provide some general thoughts our security clearance folks have on fixing the system and that could save money while being more secure:

●To provide government-wide consistency, the Defense Department should be charged with issuing all clearances, with background checks.

●All done in-house by government employees, not contractors. For those who say this would be more expensive these contracting companies have to pay benefits, competitive salaries and make a profit unlike the government.

●In addition, officials should review all jobs that need access to classified information with the idea that there are far too many people required to have a security clearance who really don’t need one (Does a guy bagging groceries at a commissary really need a security clearance?) By issuing fewer clearances, more resources can be put into software and scrutiny of those who do get them.

●Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act rules need to be relaxed in terms of the reporting of mental health issues (they changed a bit in 2006).

●All criminal charges need to be entered into the system, not just convictions.

Shaun W. May, Tully Rinckey law firm

I read your article about clearances with interest as I am a facility security officer who works for a Defense Department contractor locally.

I’ve been an FSO for about 10 years, and I’ve seen many changes . . . mostly for the better. However, as we have progressed technically, we have not done so in terms of doing background checks on our cleared and to-be-cleared individuals.

The secret clearances should be re-investigated every five years, and though your article states that there are no personal interviews for secret clearances, some better investigators do conduct those interviews. With that said for secret clearances, maybe a shorter “update” of a reinvestigation for top-secret clearances — maybe three years instead of five.

With Congress being upset about spending, this doesn’t fit the mold. You need investigators to do these background checks and they cannot be rushed. That means the Defense Department needs more money to spend on these investigators and giving them the proper training. That also means training the larger contractors on where files should be kept. One big problem is a person working in Washington can have all the security and personnel files in Roanoke simply because that is where the “contract” is managed.

I hope you can continue to enlighten the public on what it takes to get a clearance and the responsibilities of cleared people to live a higher lifestyle of integrity and self-report any situations in their lives that might be problematic.

Sean Lee, Vienna

Civil servants

An article about Katherine Archuleta, the new Office of Personnel Management director, drew this response from an online reader:

Yes, we have lazy, incompetent civil servants, at about the same percentage as the private sector has. How often do you get outstanding, excellent service vs. just barely adequate service at a restaurant, bank or store?

The other problem is the fairly small but vocal number of people in this country who have no idea what the government does or how hard and frustrating a lot of government jobs are. They just want what the government provides, when they want it, think that government services/benefits are free (created by magic, I guess), and will not stand for someone telling them no or trying to hold them accountable for anything.

BarneyIWV

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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