“I’ve got five years of experience as a national security staffer in the U.S. Congress. I held top secret security clearance.”
—Democratic congressional hopeful Jon Ossoff, remarks at a meet and greet, Feb. 20, 2017
Just about everyone starting a career finds themselves polishing their résumés to make their first jobs seem a bit more important than they really are. After all, answering phones and fetching coffee doesn’t sound nearly as impressive as “office trouble-shooter.”
But there is a fine line in such puffery. As CareerBuilder.com advises, “Most of us accept the fact that, many times, a sales pitch tends to stretch the truth. But stretching the truth on your résumé, even though it is the equivalent of a sales pitch promoting you, is never acceptable.”
This brings us to the résumé of Jon Ossoff, a Georgia Democrat who appears to have a good shot at winning a special election on April 18 to fill the House seat recently vacated by Tom Price, who became secretary of health and human services. Ossoff is just 30, but he had pitched himself as having had five years of experience as a “former national security aide” and holding a “top-secret clearance.” He has cut ads that show him standing in what appears to be a national security situation room or entering a vault assessed only by a code.
Republicans have accused Ossoff of embellishing his credentials in biting ads such as this one:
“I was granted a top-secret clearance by the U.S. Department of Defense to work on particularly sensitive programs,” Ossoff told reporters on March 30. “I stand by my record – I will put up my national security qualifications and credentials against anyone else in this race.”
So let’s put Ossoff’s record — and his description of it — under a microscope.
The soundbite above from the meet-and-greet —“I’ve got five years of experience as a national security staffer in the U.S. Congress. I held top secret security clearance.” — is rather typical of the way Ossoff frames his experience as an aide for Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.). As far as we can tell, there is always a period between a sentence about five years of national security experience and a sentence about having the security clearance.
That’s important, because campaign manager Kennan Pontoni says that Ossoff held the security clearance for only five months, at the end of his job with Johnson. Johnson, who served on the Armed Services Committee, says Ossoff, his advisor on foreign affairs and military issues, obtained the clearance because he was otherwise prevented from attending briefings with Johnson. But then Ossoff left Capitol Hill to move to London to pursue a master’s degree at the London School of Economics.
Ossoff certainly has milked that five-month period of holding a clearance. A casual listener might assume he had the clearance for the entire five years he was a “national security aide” — although, as we noted, he always appears careful to not connect the two in the same sentence.
Pontoni notes that the TV ad in the situation room is mostly about Donald Trump and that no reference is made to a top-secret clearance.
The ad with the vault includes the line: “as a national security aide with top secret clearance Jon Ossoff saw waste and abuse by military contractors and sought to stop it.” Pontoni said this referring to Johnson raising allegations that Leonie Industries, a military contractor, may have misrepresented its finances while bidding for federal contracts and had started an online smear campaign directed against journalists at USA Today looking into its business practices.
Pontoni said Ossoff had a top-secret clearance when Johnson raised the issue about Leonie. “The brief cut of him opening a door will be interpreted as a point on that,” he said. “And that point would be accurate and is truthful for us to make.”
This brings us to Ossoff”s five years of experience as a national security aide. On his official campaign bio, he says: “I was a senior national security staffer in the U.S. Congress.”
Our antenna went up when we looked at his LinkedIn page. This showed him receiving a bachelor’s degree in 2009 from Georgetown University. It also listed him as “Legislative Correspondent & Systems Administrator” from 2007 to 2009 —in other words, a part-time job while he attended college — and then shows only three years as a “senior legislative assistant” working on military issues from 2009 to 2012. (He was also Johnson’s campaign manager from April to October 2010, so effectively he was doing full-time legislative work for 2 ½ years.)
We checked Ossoff’s pay records while he worked in Congress. He was listed as part-time during his college job, earning about $30,500 over 2 ½ years. His campaign says he worked 25 to 30 hours a week, so that comes out to less than $10 an hour.
Pontoni insisted that Ossoff’s part-time work was substantive, providing a timeline that includes this line: “He shepherds through Rep. Johnson’s first successful legislative initiative in the House dealing with the civil war in northern Uganda in 2007, a conflict that later required the deployment of U.S. special forces.”
Now we were really curious. A college sophomore, working part-time, was responsible for getting a resolution through Congress?
Johnson, in an interview, insists this is true. He said that Ossoff had become a campaign spokesman when Johnson was given little chance of beating an incumbent in the 2006 election. “He was 18 years old but wiser than his years,” Johnson said. (Johnson credits Ossoff’s then-pioneering use of Facebook as essential to his unexpected victory.) By the time Johnson took the oath of office, Ossoff “was closer to me than anyone else in the office. He did a lot more than a title would indicate.”
The Uganda resolution— an appeal to the government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) to end a two-decade-old conflict— was Ossoff’s idea, Johnson said. “I didn’t know anything about it. Jon quite frankly knew more about foreign affairs than I did. He was an idea factory. He knew how to get things done.”
Daraka Satcher, Johnson’s chief of staff at the time, said that “I know it looks a little weird,” but Ossoff, as a part-timer, really did have governance over international issues. “Foreign affairs is not a huge issue on the Hill. It is mostly domestic issues, especially for a first-year member,” he explained. “That is why we felt comfortable having him do that. I know something about foreign affairs so I provided a little oversight.”
The Uganda resolution “was Jonathan’s idea,” Satcher said. “I don’t know if I thought it was going to go anywhere. We handed it to him to make it happen and he did.”
Now, a nonbinding resolution like this is not a particularly heavy lift. There was a companion resolution in the Senate, and the language in the House version is virtually similar. The debate on the House floor consisted of a handful of speeches, all in favor, and it was passed on a voice vote. But it does indicate that Ossoff was actually involved in foreign affairs even as a part-time worker.
At the meet-and-greet, Ossoff also claimed that “I helped draft legislation which was passed by Congress and signed by the president.” A resolution requires no presidential signature, but Pontoni provided a list of amendments advanced by Johnson during markups of annual National Defense Authorization bills, signed by president, that he said Ossoff helped draft. The amendments covered such issues as the effectiveness of two littoral combat ship designs and developing a plan regarding diversity in military leadership.
Does this experience mean he was a “senior national security staffer”? That is debatable. In Washingtonspeak, national security staffers tend to work on the National Security Council staff or in the Defense Department. Ossoff did not even work on the staff of a major committee, such as Armed Services or International Relations. Instead, he was an aide to a relatively low-ranking member of Congress.
The Pinocchio Test
On balance, it seems reasonable for Ossoff to say he spent five years working on national security issues in Congress, even though at least two years of that period overlapped with college work. So the GOP ads mocking him for including his college years as part of experiences are off base. The passage of the Uganda resolution demonstrates he was doing more than just answering phone calls in the office.
But Ossoff is pushing the envelope by referring to his “top-secret security clearance” in almost the same breath. He appears very careful to not connect the two elements in one sentence, but his statements and ads might leave an impression that the 30-year-old held a security clearance for longer than five months.
The relevance is also unclear. The one specific example — the allegation against a military contractor — concerned reports exposed by the news media. The ad’s line — “as a national security aide with top-secret clearance, Jon Ossoff saw waste and abuse by military contractors and sought to stop it” — does not quite say Ossoff saw this waste because of his security clearance, but it certainly implies it.
We take a reasonable-person approach here at The Fact Checker. Would an ordinary viewer understand that Ossoff’s clearance was for less than half a year? Not very likely. Moreover, declaring himself a “senior national security staffer” is also bit too much résumé puffery.
Technically, Ossoff walks a very careful line. But the overall impression is misleading enough to merit a Pinocchio.
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