THE MAGAZINE

Who Really Needs A Security Clearance?

By Megan Gates

Using his security clearance to gain access to classified documents at the National Security Agency (NSA), former federal contractor Edward Snowden copied files about the agency’s secret metadata collection programs onto a USB drive and shared them with global media outlets beginning in June 2013. Snowden, a former employee at the CIA, had failed to disclose trips to India, and only his mother and girlfriend were interviewed as part of his background investigation by USIS, a private company that conducts background investigations, before being cleared to work for the NSA.

A few months later, using his security clearance to gain access to the Washington Navy Yard, former federal contractor Aaron Alexis shot and killed 12 federal workers. Alexis was allowed to maintain the security clearance he’d been given while serving in the U.S. Navy, despite multiple run-ins with law enforcement and seeking mental health counseling after being honorably discharged from the military.

Both of these contractors had undergone and passed background investigations to obtain clearances for their positions. But information was missing from each of their files that could have caused their clearances to be suspended or revoked.

In response to these issues, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on the Efficiency and Effectiveness of Federal Programs and the Federal Workforce held a hearing to discuss how security clearances are issued and whether the process is sufficiently monitored.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) presented recommendations for a standard process that would help agencies determine whether federal personnel require security clearances. Brenda Farrell, director of defense capabilities and management for the GAO, explained some of the office’s recommendations to the subcommittee during the hearing on November 20, saying that despite the renewed efforts of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to create clear federal guidelines, more needs to be done to make sure that security clearances are only issued when absolutely necessary to the appropriate people. She said that a new process needs to be developed with clear guidelines to ensure that agencies are following federal regulations, which require that each agency determine who is “eligible for access to classified information” and that they are “kept to the minimum required for the conduct of agency functions.”

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