The sensational case of Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor gone rogue, and Russian, with something like 1.5 million highly classified documents, making this the biggest compromise in all intelligence history, has caused embarrassment and worse at NSA and across the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC). Since Snowden held high-level security clearances, the expensive and time-consuming vetting process for which is supposed to weed out obvious troublemakers, many questions have been raised about how this could have happened.
The short, and painful, answer is that Snowden was far from the first bad apple to have “beaten” the IC’s security clearance system, and he surely won’t be the last. Like so many things across the Federal government, and particularly the Department of Defense (DoD), a great deal of once-critical missions have been outsourced since the 1990’s, leading to gross incompetence and corruption by for-profit companies. (Outsourcing is a fully bipartisan boondoggle that nobody inside the Beltway wants to look into very deeply, since so many cash in on it, one way or the other.) In Snowden’s case, the firm that handled the collection of data for his clearances, USIS, stands accused of fraud on a truly massive scale, having simply faked 665,000 background investigations between 2008 and 2012. It’s little wonder that Snowden’s clearances were handled poorly.
Just how flawed the DoD security clearance system is was further highlighted by the September 2013 spree shooting at the Washington, DC, Navy Yard that killed a dozen people. The shooter, Aaron Alexis, was a Navy contractor who held a Secret-level clearance, and despite a serious incident with police indicating grave mental disturbance that should have resulted in the suspension of said clearance, and with that employment termination, the system failed to work and nothing got reported through proper channels. Since Alexis’s background investigation (BI) was handled by — of course — USIS, one wonders how much had actually been investigated about this troubled young man in the first place.
That said, the BI for a Secret-level clearance is pretty perfunctory, amounting to a glorified criminal background check, while that conducted for the Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Intelligence (TS/SCI) level, like Snowden possessed, is far more detailed and comprehensive, at least in theory. Hence the old IC joke that TS/SCI means “you’re not a felon” while Secret means “we don’t know that you’re a felon.”
To obtain TS/SCI clearances, applicants are subjected to an intricate examination of their life called a Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI) that is intended to weed out the criminal, the untrustworthy, the habitually mendacious, the psychologically unfit, as well as those with connections to hostile foreign countries. To get a job at one of the big IC agencies your SSBI will include psychological tests and a polygraph examination about counterintelligence matters and perhaps your lifestyle (if both it’s termed a “full scope” polygraph examination), the latter being largely an inquiry into criminal matters, especially drug-related, and any truly deviant sexual tendencies. The idea is to weed out those with foreign allegiances and/or who are vulnerable to exploitation by foreign intelligence services.
The polygraph is a controversial topic that I don’t intend to explore in detail here. In the hands of an experienced examiner, it can be a valuable interrogation tool; regrettably, the IC has too few veteran polygraphers, thanks in large part to the fact that it’s a boring and underappreciated job that most people leave as soon as they can transfer into something more satisfying and sexy. In the hands of an inexperienced examiner, the polygraph can be worse than useless, while using it with broad-brush questions leads to many false positives and “inconclusives” (known as INCs in the trade). In my time in counterintelligence, I saw “the box” perform both splendidly and miserably: it all comes down to the examiner and his or her ability and “sixth sense” in interrogation. A security panacea it is not and will never be.
Once you get cleared the process continues, however — they call it a lifetime secrecy oath with good reason — and you will be subjected to periodic reinvestigations every five years if you hold TS/SCI, every decade if you have a Secret-level clearance. Since five (or ten) years can be a long time, serious incidents that may impact one’s clearance status are supposed to be reported through channels — here the Alexis case highlighted the failures in the system — or are otherwise supposed to be self-reported.
Holders of TS/SCI clearances especially — who undeniably surrender a fair amount of privacy and freedom when they take on the responsibility — are supposed to inform security without delay regarding important life incidents or changes, including criminality (“Um, I got a DUI.”), finances (“Yeah…I owe a bookie $43,000 — ponies weren’t going my way.”), foreign travel (“I’m taking my kids on spring break — to Iran!”), and foreign entanglements (“I’m dating a stripper — from China…we’re cool, right?”). Needless to add, some people are quicker to report these things than others, and reinvestigations can reveal interesting facts. In my time in counterintelligence, I heard them all.
Of course, people who are warped enough to betray their oath and the country are not likely to self-report their misdeeds, à la Snowden, so the burden falls on vigilant security and especially co-workers to make note of such things and pass on relevant information. Except they don’t. Rather, they hardly ever do. I was involved in several espionage investigations, and the one constant was that co-workers never reported their concerns, which turned out to be considerable, to the proper authorities. Nobody wants to be “a rat,” moreover there’s a very human tendency at work whereby no one wants to think the worst of a co-worker — perhaps a coffee club buddy or carpool friend. Americans are an optimistic people, you know.
Just how weak this reporting system is across DoD was laid bare by the recent case of Vice Admiral Timothy Giardina, who until a few months ago was the deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) — in English, his was the second hand on the trigger of America’s vast nuclear arsenal. It would be hard to overstate the responsibility in his hands. Regrettably, VADM Giardina was leading a secret life based on obsessive gambling, at which he was spending something like fifteen hours a week, which would qualify as a part-time job. One wonders how he had time for this when his full-time job was among the busiest anywhere in DoD or the U.S. Government.
VADM Giardina was well known at several casinos around Omaha, Nebraska, where STRATCOM is headquartered, and he seemed to lose more than win. As revealed in a recent investigation by the Associated Press, the admiral was hailed as “Navy Tim” at his homes-away-from-home, who knew more about him than STRATCOM or the Navy did. Indeed, his official employers only learned of VADM Giardina’s habit when he was arrested for passing homemade fake chips; employing skills not taught at the Naval Academy or any Navy school I attended, VADM Giardina had converted $1 poker chips into the $500 kind. Casinos frown on this sort of thing, and the admiral was arrested and subsequently banned for life from certain casinos. Before that ban was in place, VADM Giardina kept gambling there, even after his arrest, so serious was his addiction.
It was this arrest that alerted his employers and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) — before that, they had no inkling about the admiral’s habits. When asked by a casino security officer about the protocols he, as a TS/SCI (plus) holder, was subject to, Giardina replied, “(What) they’re really trying to do is find out if you got, you know, if you’re having sex with animals or something really crazy or you’ve got this wild life that you could be blackmailed into giving military secrets out.” We can only hope that Russian and Chinese intelligence — whose interest in the deputy commander of STRATCOM would be difficult to overstate — were as blissfully unaware as the U.S. Navy was about his private life.
Why Giardina wasn’t caught beforehand isn’t difficult to discern. Nobody likes to tell security, those sneaky and snoopy guys down the hall, about their counterintelligence concerns regarding a co-worker — particularly when that co-worker is your boss and a three-star admiral. Despite the fact that the admiral, on advice of counsel, refused to cooperate with NCIS, Giardina is getting kid-glove treatment. He was found guilty in May 2014 of two counts of conduct unbecoming an officer: lying to an investigator and passing fake gambling chips. Giardina was given a written reprimand and ordered to forfeit $4,000 in pay; he will retire with one less star and still get a very handsome pension. Needless to add, the APA (Admirals’ Protective Association) remains a powerful force, and those lower in rank would never be dealt with so kindly. In identical circumstances, less senior officers would see a pension-less future while enlisted personnel would face prison. Giardina continues to profess a sort of innocence; perhaps he can help O.J. Simpson find the “real killers” someday.
I wish I could tell you this is an anomaly. It is not; it is entirely normal in U.S. military and intelligence circles these days. Rank has its privileges and connections matter — more than rules and regulations. I will share with you just one case, among many, that I was involved in. The individual in question had gotten an job at an IC “three-letter agency” through connections. Although this person’s initial SSBI had revealed anomalies, related to hostile foreign intelligence no less, they were brushed aside due to said connections. Upon reinvestigation, it was learned that this person had some serious personal issues. Specifically, there was domestic violence involving guns plus a suicide attempt. Police were called and there were reports. Worse, the individual had lied to officers of the court about all this. By any standard, this was a seriously disturbed individual. This was all reflected in the paperwork given to DoD investigators.
You know what happened? Absolutely nothing. Last I heard this person still has TS/SCI clearances and is working for the IC. Making big money, no less. I wish I could say I’m shocked, but I no longer am. How many Snowdens are there? Is it a handful? Dozens? Platoons? Battalions?
I don’t know and I no longer venture a guess. Despite recent, ahem, setbacks, the IC has asked for more taxpayer money next year. If this is money well spent I shall defer to you as a taxpayer. I don’t think it’s worth having vastly expensive intelligence agencies if you can’t keep secrets and prevent those secrets from being broadcast to the world…but then I’m kinda old school about that sort of thing.