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Five myths about security clearances

July 27, 2018 at 12:16 PM

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Washington Post national security reporter Shane Harris explains what you need to know about security clearances. (Shane Harris, Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

This past week, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said President Trump was considering revoking the security clearances of former high-ranking officials who had criticized him, such as onetime director of national intelligence James Clapper, CIA director John Brennan and national security adviser Susan Rice. It wasn’t the first time the shadowy, little-understood process behind access to the government’s innermost secrets was the center of questions this year. Here are some of the most common misunderstandings.

Myth No. 1

There's a security clearance level above 'top secret.'

One of the favorite myths of conspiracy theorists — and a regular trope of movies — is that there are security clearances “above top secret.” Online message boards are littered with questions about who has clearances “10 levels above the president.” Former congressman Allen West once claimed to possess a security clearance higher than the president.

While this is false, there are complex gradations of clearance that determine who has access to what, and it’s not just about “confidential,” “secret” and “top secret” clearances. The way the government secures information might be better likened to a tree, with a main trunk branching into ever-smaller limbs, boughs and twigs, each more restrictive, less known and more tightly held than the last.

James Clapper testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committe hearing on January 10, 2017. (Tasos Katopodis/AFP/Getty Images)

There is no level “beyond” top secret, but within those three broad categories are what the government calls “need to know” information, multitudes of sub-clearances, each designated by their own codeword. That “need to know” includes what’s known as SCI, or “sensitive compartmented information,” which deals with intelligence sources and methods. There are also SAPs, or “special access programs,” which deal with specific “black” projects, operations, weapons systems or even secret acquisition efforts like stealth planes. Then there are designations like “Yankee White,” which denotes those who pass a special security process and are cleared to work on presidential communications and security systems.

Myth No. 2

You can't be political if you have a security clearance.

Commenting on Brennan and Clapper this past week, Sanders suggested that Trump wanted to pull their clearances because of their partisan criticism. That theory has been echoed by Fox News pundits like Jim Hanson, who wrote that the former officials are “abusing” their access to secrets in a “partisan political manner.”

But there’s no prohibition in the security clearance process against partisan opinions — with one narrow exception. The Clinton-era Executive Order 12968, “Access to Classified Information ,” currently guides the process, saying that clearances shall be granted only to individuals “whose personal and professional history affirmatively indicates loyalty to the United States, strength of character, trustworthiness, honesty, reliability, discretion, and sound judgment, as well as freedom from conflicting allegiances and potential for coercion.”

That means agencies use what they call a “whole person” evaluation to adjudicate a clearance level and assess “derogatory events,” rather than relying on any specific checklist of behavior. Although the government studies 13 areas, from demonstrated “allegiance to the U.S.” to sexual behavior, financial considerations and alcohol consumption, it doesn’t bar expressing partisan opinions, taking political views or even engaging in electoral politics (as long as federal employees don’t violate the Hatch Act). The only question in the security process dealing with politics comes around Page 125 of the SF-86 background form: Question 29 asks whether you intend to commit sedition or violently overthrow the government by force — or whether you’ve belonged to groups that encourage that.

Myth No. 3

There's such a thing as a 'permanent clearance.'

Earlier this year, a controversy around White House aide Rob Porter centered on presidential advisers who had been operating for a year with “interim” clearances while they awaited background checks. According to much of the reporting, these investigations would grant them what most of the media (including NBC News, the Chicago Tribune and even The Washington Post ) described as “permanent clearances.”

That term is a misnomer. Even those who fill out the lengthy SF-86 background form — which requires listing personal information ranging from past relationships to financial information to drug use — and pass a “single scope background investigation ” aren’t in the clear indefinitely. “Top secret” clearance holders are reinvestigated regularly — the standard is typically every five years, though it’s longer at times because of reinvestigation backlogs. They can have their clearances yanked if they’ve fallen into financial trouble (including lagging on student loan repayments) or undertaken suspicious foreign travel or contacts, or if there’s other new “adverse information,” such as recent treatment for mental health or charges of domestic abuse.

In the wake of leak scandals like Chelsea Manning’s disclosure of sensitive information, the Pentagon has also been moving to what it calls a “continuous evaluation program” that monitors 22 databases to see if new adverse information has arisen; in the Pentagon’s pilot of 500,000 people, the program saw 48 clearances yanked early.

Myth No. 4

There's no reason for former employees to have clearances.

The White House announcement about Clapper, Brennan and others left people like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Fox News host Tucker Carlson asking why private citizens still have access to top-secret government information. Brennan, Carlson said, is “a private citizen who works for a cable news station — could I get a top-secret clearance and find out government secrets and use them in the course of my job? What is this?” Paul, for his part, claimed it was “alarming” that Brennan still had clearance.

It isn’t, not least because many agencies allow employees with active clearances to keep them after they leave the government. Indeed, high-ranking officials can often keep their clearances effectively for life, as long as they pass the routine reinvestigations, because agencies believe they serve as important keepers of institutional memory, providing advice and counsel to current employees. If you’re the new CIA director, it helps to call your predecessor and ask how he or she handled similar situations or navigated tricky political waters.

Already “cleared” federal employees are also in high demand with defense or other government contractors, since they can start work on classified projects immediately without waiting for the lengthy background checks. And private-sector contracting work usually involves a healthy pay bump from federal service.

Myth No. 5

Only the president can declassify secrets.

Amid the furor earlier this year over the “Nunes memo ,” conservative pundits urged the president to declassify the intelligence behind the origin of the Russia investigation because, as Judge Andrew Napolitano told Fox News, “only the president can declassify that which has already been classified as ‘top secret.’ ” The Minneapolis Star Tribune similarly wrote, “Once a record has been classified, it’s a federal crime to disclose it to the public by anyone other than the president.”

While the president has unique powers to declassify information — he can instantly declassify anything without any process or review — the government has numerous “original classification authorities,” who are free at any time to classify or declassify information “owned” by their departments. Officials like the secretary of state and the CIA director, or those designated by them, can classify (and declassify) information at the “top secret” level. Even people like the commerce secretary and the agriculture secretary can classify at the “secret” level.

Twitter: @vermontgmg

Five myths is a weekly feature challenging everything you think you know. You can check out previous myths, read more from Outlook or follow our updates on Facebook and Twitter.


Garrett M. Graff, a magazine writer and historian, is the author of “Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself — While the Rest of Us Die.”

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