The woman was so agitated that she wouldn’t sit down right away, not until she’d scoured the perimeter of the office and examined the doorway, tracing the frame with her fingers, looking for any sign of an embedded surveillance device.
Ayaan Ali, a domestic violence victims’ advocate for the Women’s Center in Fairfax County, thought at first that the client was mentally ill. When the woman calmed down enough to sit and talk, she asked Ali not to write anything down, not to record anything. The client was terrified that her husband would find out where she was and what she was saying. He had ways of doing that, she told Ali: He was a high-ranking member of the intelligence community who had abused her psychologically and physically and threatened to have her killed.
Across the Washington region — home to an estimated 1 million federal workers, military personnel, intelligence operatives and government contractors with security clearances — social service agencies have become accustomed to domestic abuse cases with security-credential connections.
Victims’ advocates and law enforcement officers say they often cope with traumatized clients who are particularly intimidated and paranoid — victims who dismantle their cellphones to avoid being tracked, who are afraid that their e-mail accounts and computers have been hacked, who think that the symbolic power and credibility of a security clearance means that friends, families and authorities will not believe allegations of abuse.
Although no one tracks the number of domestic violence cases that involve security clearances, the issue has come up so frequently for Kacey Kirkland, a victims’ services specialist with Fairfax police, that she has gone out of her way to educate herself about the topic.
“I’ve taken it upon myself to seek out information from experts in this area,” Kirkland said, “so when I talk to a victim who has probably gotten all of her information from an abuser, I know what to say.”
Ayaan Ali had never handled a case involving a security clearance until she moved to Fairfax three years ago from Minnesota, where she had spent most of her decade-long career in advocating for domestic violence victims.
“Right away, I noticed that I had victims with abusers who worked for the Department of Defense, for intelligence agencies, who were high-ranking in the military, all of whom had security clearances,” she said. “I had to learn new ways of safety planning for them.”
When the woman who examined the door frame talked about her husband’s work, “it was James Bond kind of stuff,” Ali said. “Things I’d never heard except in movies. But after talking more with her, I understood why she felt how she did. She was smart. She understood what he had access to and what he was capable of.”
With help, the woman was able to leave the marriage safely, Ali said.
Not all victims recount stories that sound like spy-movie scripts, said Teresa Belcher, who also works with abuse victims in Fairfax, but their circumstances may still be treacherous.
“A security clearance is another barrier to getting help,” Belcher said. “It represents access to information that normal people may not have. It heightens the perception of power.”
Using a job or social status to exert control over a partner is not unusual. Domestic violence experts often see similar behavior by abusers who are doctors, lawyers, politicians — any profession with inherent power or credibility.
It’s a scenario that leaves a victim facing daunting threats: No one will believe you. You could lose custody of the kids. I’ll know how to find you. If you contact authorities, our family will lose its income.
And because the process of reviewing or revoking a security clearance is so complex, there is no easy answer for victims who want to understand how a partner’s security clearance might be affected by a protective order or complaint.
“The key thing to understand is that clearances are not black and white,” said Mark Zaid, a Washington lawyer who specializes in national security issues. “Being arrested in a domestic disturbance . . . doesn’t mean you’re going to lose your clearance or your job. It could lead to a hearing, where you have to explain what happened.”
Zaid said he could not recall a case where an abuse allegation alone resulted in a denied or revoked clearance. But Leslie McAdoo Gordon, a former special agent for the Defense Security Service and a defense attorney who specializes in cases involving security clearances, said she has frequently seen allegations of domestic abuse pose significant problems for clients.
“I hear over and over again about an abuser telling the woman, ‘If you report this, I will lose my clearance.’ And given what the environment is now, that’s not an idle threat,” she said. “Is he saying that to manipulate her? Yes. But he is also describing accurately what will happen if she has a valid complaint.”
The Defense Department, the CIA and several prominent defense contractors offered little or no information about how they document domestic violence cases and what kind of impact such allegations can have on those with security clearances. Officials from Lockheed Martin were the most forthcoming, saying in a written statement that the company takes the issue seriously and requires employees with security clearances to report incidents.
Government agencies and contractors might not want to talk about the issue, but Gordon maintains that she has seen a noticeable increase in cases where domestic violence constitutes grounds to revoke or deny a clearance: “It’s definitely much more prevalent than it used to be, and the agencies are taking it far more seriously.”
That shift is reflected in the paperwork required to obtain a clearance, Gordon said. Just a few years ago, the government’s questionnaire for security clearances did not ask about domestic violence in the section devoted to criminal history. But the form was updated in 2010 and now requires applicants to specify whether any prior arrests involved domestic violence, and to disclose whether a domestic violence protective order has ever been entered against them.
A heightened focus on violent behavior is also part of a much larger congressional overhaul of the security clearance screening process, fueled by last year’s mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard. The gunman, a 34-year-old defense contractor named Aaron Alexis, was a former Navy reservist with a history of mental problems and violent behavior — warning signs that did not keep him from obtaining a security clearance.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who chairs a subcommittee that oversees federal contracting, “is working to ensure that investigators have access to every piece of information when conducting a background check, including access to local criminal data such as domestic violence records,” a spokeswoman for the senator said, “and that investigators can review this information more than once every five years as an incentive to encourage self-reporting.”
The move toward a continuous evaluation of security clearance holders would help catch more potential warning signs, Gordon said. “But it takes a long time to implement new policies. The security clearance apparatus is a very large ship, and it doesn’t turn very fast.”
It has been years since she finally left the man who tormented her, but the trauma lingers.
“He waged psychological warfare on me,” said one victim, who agreed to be interviewed by The Washington Post on the condition that she and the counselor who helped her leave her marriage not be identified.
Her husband, a clearance-holding federal contractor, knew that an injury she’d suffered had left her vulnerable to panic attacks and seizures, she said. And he knew how to trigger them. Although he was not physically violent to her, she said, he was violent around her, sometimes smashing objects nearby when he was angry.
The woman described a constant state of terror and exhaustion. But her husband made it clear that if she sought help and he lost his clearance, he wouldn’t be able to provide for her — and she hadn’t worked in years.
“He would say, ‘I’m really concerned about what will happen to you if I can’t keep a job,’ ” she said. “I was financially tethered to him.”
The woman said her husband ultimately lost his clearance, not because of allegations of domestic violence but because of other troubles, she said. Though they were married for years, she said she was never contacted by federal investigators when her husband’s security clearance was issued or due for review.
The woman has a job and a safe home now. But she said she still looks in her rearview mirror sometimes, frightened that she’ll see him in the car behind her. She still worries that one day he might show up at her door.
Leaving her husband took a long time, she said, but healing — “that takes even longer.”
As in all cases of domestic abuse, advocates report a range of outcomes in cases involving security clearances. Some victims overcome their fears and leave the relationship. Some try to find ways to lessen the danger to themselves and stay. Others surface only once or twice to grasp for help, and then disappear.
Rahel Schwartz, a social worker with the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse in Rockville, still remembers the sound of one client’s voice — a frail, tremulous whisper on the other end of the phone line.
The client said that her husband, a federal IT expert with a security clearance, had threatened to have her killed. She said she felt as if she couldn’t leave him. She feared for her children, for their financial future.
Schwartz said it was sometimes difficult to understand the woman’s words because she spoke so quietly, often through tears, always from a public phone in a crowded place.
“It’s like her presence was so diminished,” Schwartz said, “her voice was almost lost . . . she wanted a way out.”
But the client came into the office only a couple of times, Schwartz said. That was more than a year ago. Schwartz still wonders what happened to her.
“We hope that at some point if she needs us again, that she will come back to us,” Schwartz said. “We hope she is okay.”