After the shooting spree at Washington’s Navy Yard, President Barack Obama ordered a review of security clearance policies across the government. Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel reiterated the president’s directive for a broad review. Hagel said in hindsight there were red flags in the background of Aaron Alexis, the man who killed 12 people at the Navy Yard. Critics say the tragedy might have been prevented if more stringent security clearance procedures had been in place. Others argue the procedures are sound, but not always followed as closely as they should be. Diane and her guests discuss new concerns about background checks and security clearances.

Guests

  • Michael Greenberger founder and director at the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security and professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law.
  • Sheldon Cohen security clearance attorney.
  • Carol Leonnig national staff writer, The Washington Post.
  • John Fitzpatrick director, the Information Security Oversight Office at the National Archives Records Administration; from 2006-2011 he was the intelligence community's leader in the Bush and Obama administrations' efforts to transform security clearance processes across the U.S. government.

Transcript

  • 10:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Nearly 5 million federal workers hold top secret or secret security clearances. The suspect in the Navy Yard shootings had a secret level clearance. The Obama administration has called for a government-wide review of the background check system.

  • 10:07:15

    MS. DIANE REHMJoining me in the studio to talk about how the government grants security clearances: Michael Greenberger of the University of Maryland's Center for Health and Homeland Security, John Fitzpatrick of the Information Security Oversight Office at the National Archives, Carol Leonnig of The Washington Post, and Sheldon Cohen, a security clearance attorney. I know many of you will want to weigh in on this discussion. Give us your thoughts by calling 800-433-8850, send us an email to drshow@wamu.org, follow us on Facebook, or send us a tweet. Welcome to all of you.

  • 10:08:03

    MR. MICHAEL GREENBERGERGood morning.

  • 10:08:03

    MR. JOHN FITZPATRICKGood morning.

  • 10:08:03

    MS. CAROL LEONNIGThanks, Diane.

  • 10:08:03

    MR. SHELDON COHENGood morning.

  • 10:08:06

    REHMGood to see you all. Michael Greenberger, I know there are three types of security clearance: confidential, secret, top secret. Tell us what they mean.

  • 10:08:19

    GREENBERGERWell, they're gradations of the access that an employee has, and confidential is the lowest level. And everything is based on what the danger is to the country of releasing classified information. And somebody who has confidential is seeing so little relative to everybody else that there is -- only would be denied if there is a reasonable expectation it would cause danger.

  • 10:08:53

    GREENBERGERSecret is causing danger to the United States if you release classified information, and top secret is that you would create a grave danger to the United States if the information was mishandled. And, obviously, to the extent the dangers go up, theoretically, the investigations become more exacting.

  • 10:09:14

    REHMSo there are nearly 5 million federal employees and contractors holding security clearances. Of those, 2.75 federal employees, 582,000 contractors hold confidential or secret clearances, and of those, 791,000 federal employees, 483,000 contractors hold top secret clearance. John Fitzpatrick, who performs these background checks? What are they looking at?

  • 10:10:08

    FITZPATRICKOK. So background checks are performed by federal agencies who are authorized by the director of national intelligence, who serves for the federal government as the security executive agent for standards and practices. And so there are nearly two dozen different agencies that have authority to conduct investigations. By far, at more than 95 percent, the Office of Personnel Management conducts background investigations, is the largest federal service provider to agencies.

  • 10:10:44

    FITZPATRICKAnd so background investigation itself is one portion of a clearance process. The decision to grant someone access to classified information at whichever level that Michael just described, that's done by the agency that's authorized to hold classified information.

  • 10:11:06

    REHMAnd what are they looking for?

  • 10:11:08

    FITZPATRICKSo there's a set of standard that are known as the adjudicative guidelines. They're established pursuant to an executive order and a presidential decision. There are 13 of these standards. They are consistent across the federal government. Every agency that makes its decisions about providing access to classified information makes it according to these standards.

  • 10:11:29

    FITZPATRICKThey are things like allegiance to the United States, foreign influence or foreign preference, personal conduct, financial responsibility, psychological conditions, criminal conduct, all the things that we have heard questions asked about. In background investigations, they relate to essentially business rules for making these decisions.

  • 10:11:49

    FITZPATRICKSo whether you're given a secret clearance or a top secret clearance, you're evaluated against all 13 of these factors. The investigation's results are compared to all of these factors, and if there's a judgment made by a government official, it's always made by a government official, to grant access to classified or not, that is done in the initial case, the first time someone needs access to classified information.

  • 10:12:15

    FITZPATRICKAnd then it is done at a designated interval afterward, a reinvestigation. For top secret clearances, the current standard is that be done every five years and for secret clearances -- secret and confidential are lumped together. There's one process, one investigation that serves both of the levels of classification, and that one is 10 years. And in the case that we've been talking about this week, he held a secret clearance, and 10 years is the timeframe.

  • 10:12:42

    REHMAnd, Sheldon Cohen, if you are given a security clearance by one agency, does that hold if you move to another agency?

  • 10:12:55

    COHENAccording to executive order, these clearances are supposed to be reciprocal, unless the particular agency has higher standards, such as requiring a polygraph or there is new and intervening information that comes forward since the last clearance. But other than those two instances, the clearances are to be reciprocal between agencies. This is to avoid the previous problem where every agency was doing its own clearances, and you might have three and four and five agencies doing the same work over and over again.

  • 10:13:31

    REHMSo to you, Carol Leonnig, how did Aaron Alexis slip through all these cracks?

  • 10:13:40

    LEONNIGWell, what we've learned through our reporting essentially, Diane, is that, because of that large window -- a 10-year security clearance for a secret level of classification access -- he was given his background investigation and cleared by an OPM -- forgive me. The investigation was by OPM. He was cleared by a Defense Department official as appropriate and safe. He was then discharged honorably from the military and the Navy after...

  • 10:14:14

    REHMExcuse me. Let me stop you there. I had heard initially it was a general discharge, which, I gather, is one step below an honorable discharge.

  • 10:14:27

    LEONNIGYes. There's been a problem with this. The first day, the Navy told us and most other media outlets that he had been given a general discharge. The confusion was that they were actually moving in proceedings for a general discharge because of a pattern of misconduct by Aaron Alexis as a Navy reservist. There were a series of problems, some minor, some significant, and that general discharge would have been yet another flag, which was not raised, because they decided -- the Navy decided to proceed more quickly and give him an honorable discharge.

  • 10:14:59

    LEONNIGThat ended up leaving, when he left the Navy, a contractor who wanted to hire him without the information to know that he had a pattern of misconduct, without a sort of warning. Now, back to the security clearance that you asked so smartly about, in his instance, the OPM security clearance that was approved by the Defense Department continued in force for 10 years.

  • 10:15:22

    LEONNIGSo when the contractor went to check, has he a valid security clearance, in September of 2012, he did. When they checked again in July of 2013, just a few weeks ago, he still maintained a valid security clearance. The reason they did that is that he left their employ for a period of time earlier this year, so they wanted to check and recertify that.

  • 10:15:48

    LEONNIGWhat I find striking and what some experts have told us is that once he left the Navy, for whatever reason, it might have been appropriate for him to have a new background investigation once he was in industry, rather than continuing the security clearance for such a long period of time.

  • 10:16:05

    REHMSo when he became a contractor, what you're saying is that they simply relied on the Navy's honorary discharge and continued with that clearance he had already been given instead of doing a new security clearance?

  • 10:16:29

    LEONNIGYes. There's an enormous sort of database that the Defense Department maintains known as JPAS. I won't go into the boring details of that, but this huge database is something any security officer can click into and figure out is the status of this person's security clearance, whether a contractor, a military or a civilian personnel.

  • 10:16:51

    LEONNIGAnd in his instance, when the contracting employee checked, he was valid.

  • 10:16:56

    REHMWhat I'm having a hard time understanding is, he apparently had some mental health issues that he even talked with a professional about. The professional is reported to have asked him, are you thinking about harming yourself? Would you consider harming others? The answer to both questions was no. Why would any mental health professional take this gentleman's word for it? And I talk to you, Sheldon Cohen. What might have been a more appropriate course of action there?

  • 10:17:48

    COHENWell, I talked to a number of doctors about what their obligation to report is, and they all tell me that if the information comes to their attention that a person is a danger to themselves or to others, then they've got an obligation, despite whatever HIPAA says. They've got an obligation to report that to the local authorities.

  • 10:18:08

    COHENThere was no such information that he was a danger to himself or others that came to the attention of the VA, so they were acting under normal medical procedures and not reporting their information. From what I read, he came in complaining that he was not able to sleep, and he sought medication for sleep. That is not the type of thing that would be reported.

  • 10:18:27

    REHMSheldon Cohen, he's a security clearance attorney. When we come back, we'll talk about his involvement with police and to what extent that or those incidents might have been reported for security purposes. Stay with us.

  • 10:20:02

    REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about security procedure not only in the government but as those security clearances are applied to contractors, which is precisely what Aaron Alexis was at the time he walked into the Navy Yard here in Washington, D.C., proceeded to shoot 12 people and then either shot himself or was shot by police authorities. So many questions here. Carol Leonnig, something happened in Rhode Island that really should have set off lots of red bells. What was it?

  • 10:20:58

    LEONNIGSo in Rhode Island, in the first week of August this year, basically six weeks before this shooting, Aaron Alexis was in a hotel where he was working as a contractor for The Experts and at the Newport, R.I. Naval Station updating computers. In that hotel room, he called police, as a victim, to report that microwaves were being sent through his room and voices were screaming at him in the room.

  • 10:21:26

    LEONNIGThe police, smartly there in Rhode Island, concluded that he was hallucinating and that there was something wrong with him mentally, and they wanted to follow up. They went to the Newport -- I'm sorry, the Newport Naval Station to say, hey, guys, there's a person in a hotel who says he's your contractor.

  • 10:21:47

    LEONNIGWe want to check if that's true. He says he's working here, and we think he's a problem. The Naval Air Station told the police department in Rhode Island that they would follow up. But as we learned yesterday in a briefing with the Secretary of Defense, it appears that that never happened. And Secretary Hagel said that, clearly, some balls were dropped. It would have been an exercise of a few keystrokes to check Alexis' name in the security clearance database, confirm that it was a contractor and confirm that he had an all-access pass to bases.

  • 10:22:22

    REHMSheldon Cohen, what's the legal responsibility of the Naval Air Station in this kind of situation?

  • 10:22:33

    COHENThe -- as I understand it, the Rhode Island police reported it to the Navy base police. The Navy base police should have reported it to the security people who then should have checked this JPAS database. I think, in the end, the Navy's going to find itself responsible for negligence in not handling this, and the individuals who were shot may very well have a good case against the Navy.

  • 10:22:59

    REHMWhat do you think, John Fitzpatrick?

  • 10:23:01

    FITZPATRICKSo we talked earlier -- and not disagreeing with Sheldon -- we talked earlier about this initial investigation and a reinvestigation later. And so what are we expecting happens in the interval while someone is in the work force and while they hold a clearance? People who hold a clearance are given a briefing once a year. It's required by the executive order, and my office oversees that it happens, reminded of obligations when you hold a clearance.

  • 10:23:26

    FITZPATRICKAnd your employees are supposed to self-report certain significant events. Employees are supposed to, if you see something, say something about your co-workers. And managers and supervisors are supposed to be attuned to who has a clearance, what am I -- what do I know about this individual's behavior, big shifts and alarming details of their conduct, and to raise that issue.

  • 10:23:48

    FITZPATRICKSo going to Sheldon's point about -- as the reviews will turn out what the facts are, those facts will be compared against that expectation that there's a management responsibility not only to think about his person's well-being and the well-being of the people around him. But in the context of them holding a clearance, should we reevaluate that clearance decision sooner? It's not -- there's no indication yet that that happened in this case.

  • 10:24:12

    REHMMichael Greenberger.

  • 10:24:14

    GREENBERGERWell, the one thing I would just say is I'm a little concerned. I think it's -- that it's good. Leaving aside the specifics of his case, is the system broken? Five million clearances, many, many people -- and I'm among them -- think that's way too many people to keep track of and that -- and that's a result of over-classification. Too much stuff is classified.

  • 10:24:41

    GREENBERGERAnd, you know, we've had the episode with Snowden who had the keys to the kingdom, released it all. He didn't have a high school diploma. The other thing is Snowden's working -- people keep saying he's a contractor. He's not a contractor. He's an employee of a contractor. The missing link in here is we're turning the government over to contractors.

  • 10:25:05

    GREENBERGERBooz Allen Hamilton who was the Snowden employer just recently signed a $5.6 billion contract to essentially do spying, or to help the NSA do spying. I think the American public doesn't understand. And when you read those statistics of who's getting security clearances, one-third of the people are contractors. And who is doing the investigation? Contractors. Contractors are brought in to do the investigation.

  • 10:25:39

    GREENBERGERAnd the U.S. attorney's office in the District of Colombia has convicted 19 contractor investigators for fraudulent conduct in the investigation, that is to say, cheating to make the report look better. They have 48 of those cases under investigation. And why does that happen? The metric here isn't that you protect secrets. The metric here is how fast can you get the security clearance done? And that's how people, especially in the private sector, are rewarded.

  • 10:26:17

    GREENBERGERLook, this system -- I could go on forever. This system is very badly broken from top to bottom. It's not just what happened on Monday. But the Fort Hood shooting, the psychiatrist -- again, there were reports from other psychiatrists that he had problems. The Manning situation where that young man, now referring to himself as Chelsea and a woman, he was clearly having psychological problems. He should have been pulled out. And Snowden should not have had the keys to the kingdom.

  • 10:26:51

    REHMHere is an email from Linda in Alexandria. She says, "I'm a retired federal employee. Over my career, I had numerous security clearances at various levels. To what extent are background checks being done by contractors? And is this perceived as a potential problem? I've never been a fan of contracting out in the government, even though I realize this is perceived to save money and improve efficiency." Sheldon Cohen.

  • 10:27:33

    COHENWell, not all investigations are done by contractors. First, the CIA, the NSA, and the FBI do their own investigations. The contractors that are hired by Office of Personnel Management, OPM, do the field investigation. They report that information to OPM which reviews it -- that's it -- and checks it to see if there is any inconsistencies. It is true that there have been a number of investigators who have been indicted and found guilty of not doing their job.

  • 10:28:07

    COHENThe -- I have to disagree with this statement that there are too many security clearances out there. We, outside the government, are really not in position to know how many are needed. There are 5 million people holding security clearances. There are untold numbers holding these so-called CAC cards or common entry cards that don't have security clearances.

  • 10:28:30

    COHENSo there's a far greater number that have access to military bases. Unless we are going to go and have an Orwellian society where every shred of information about everybody is put into a database, checked on an instantaneous basis, I don't think we're ever going to be able to prevent this kind of a situation.

  • 10:28:50

    REHMCarol.

  • 10:28:51

    LEONNIGI think that what Mike has said thus far about the volume being the problem, it is definitely tracking with the reporting that I've been doing with my colleagues. We have heard -- you know, in OPM's situation, 75 percent of the investigations are done by contractors. OPM doesn't do them...

  • 10:29:09

    REHMSeventy-five percent?

  • 10:29:11

    LEONNIGYes. And it -- what's striking about that is, then we hear from the background investigation employees who say that they are literally going through these so quickly that they are approving them at home while they're sitting at their kitchen table. They're going through them in that kind of volume. Volume is clearly the issue here. Now, imagine that volume is so painful at the same time that we don't relook at people with secret clearances for 10 years unless they are arrested for blowing up a building, charged, and convicted.

  • 10:29:43

    LEONNIGThat -- if we went to a more consistent review of people, it'd be even more volume. So I understand why the military is concerned about, you know, revamping the system. But the military clearly has known for a long time that this system is broken because they have tried pilot programs to review people more frequently to see, have they changed in the last five years while they've had a security clearance?

  • 10:30:09

    LEONNIGAnd what they found in an Army pilot program that started last year, when they looked just at social media and online databases, was that 20 percent of the people they reviewed had a serious issue that had to be re-reviewed to determine whether they should keep their security clearance. Those issues included threatening the president and his life on social media sites, being arrested and charged with crimes, expressing suicidal intentions in some way. It's just very striking to me that that is happening.

  • 10:30:42

    REHMLet me ask you, Carol, what we know might have happened after Aaron Alexis shot through the ceiling of his apartment and after he blew out the tires of a fellow employee.

  • 10:31:04

    LEONNIGSure. So the chronological order is that in 2004, before he's in the Navy, he shoots out the tire. He remarks that he's in a sort of black-out level rage. In 2008, once he is in the Navy, he is thrown out of a bar for destroying the furnishings and yelling profanities outside at police, and he spends two nights in jail. In 2010, he shoots through the ceiling of his apartment and into his upstairs neighbor's apartment.

  • 10:31:35

    LEONNIGHe says that he didn't realize he had a round in the chamber when he was cleaning his gun -- kind of unusual for a person in the Navy. His upstairs neighbor said she was petrified of him because he kept threatening her about the noise that he said she was making. The Navy was alerted to all three of these things first in his initial background investigation conducted by the OPM in 2007 and finalized in 2008.

  • 10:32:00

    LEONNIGThat 2004 incident -- sorry, so many dates -- but the incident with the tire, they were aware of and did not see as a serious problem. You can sort of see why -- I mean, shooting a tire, no conviction -- police didn't follow up on it. But once you get to 2008 and the throwing out of the bar, the 2010 shooting through the ceiling, and you see records that now Seattle is turning over, saying that the parents were worried about him being an anger management problem.

  • 10:32:30

    LEONNIGYou sort of understand why the Navy was moving to discharge him in 2010.

  • 10:32:34

    REHMCarol Leonnig, she's national staff writer for the Washington Post. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." John Fitzpatrick, I want to ask you about the issues Sheldon Cohen raised. Do you believe there are going to be lawsuits against the federal government, against the U.S. Navy because of these -- shall we call them oversights? Shall we call it negligence? What shall we call it? -- 12 people killed because one guy with security clearance walks into the Navy Yard with a long gun?

  • 10:33:25

    FITZPATRICKWell, I will take Sheldon's, I'll say, professional opinion on what might happen once the facts of the case are established and made known. And I think what was -- been made clear in the initial and all of the follow-up government response, including the president's remarks and all the actions announced by Secretary Hagel, is that there are robust processes starting up this week to lay out exactly what those facts were.

  • 10:33:50

    FITZPATRICKIt was encouraged not only by the comprehensive approach that the secretary laid out but also that he's having an independent -- his own red team within the constructs of his -- he has a procedure looking at base access, one looking at higher end clearing, and then he's going to have an alternate analysis done to make sure that's robust. I think that is an encouraging approach, and I would put that in parallel the OMB will take the president's direction to look at the cross-government impacts of this because...

  • 10:34:22

    REHMWell, I know that you were involved in the efforts starting the Bush administration, continued under President Obama to revamp the whole security clearance process. So would you not agree with Michael Greenberger that the whole thing is too big, too complicated, too widespread?

  • 10:34:53

    FITZPATRICKI think -- I would phrase it this way. Volume is a significant challenge to the system as built. I had a role in determining, what is that number? How many people have a clearance? It was asked during this reform period. And there was a interesting debate about, OK, once you know that number, how do you know what the right number is? And that's a very complicated thing that gets into the issues (unintelligible) over-classification, there is clearly an issue in the U.S. government with too much information being classified. And don't classify too long.

  • 10:35:23

    REHMBut how was it changed then to create more efficiency, to create a better process?

  • 10:35:32

    FITZPATRICKSo the Intelligence Reform in Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 had a number of legislative mandates created for the clearance process. This is the first time there's ever been an executive branch-wide approach to this process. This process, as I said, is locally administered by and large based on the investigations produced by OPM. And so is for the first time, in response to the IRTPA, that the government said, OK, let's get all of the people who are doing this in a room. Let's compare across the whole. Let's get these total numbers and that...

  • 10:36:06

    REHMYou mean across all agents?

  • 10:36:07

    FITZPATRICKAcross all of government and to understand, how would you -- if you have a mandate which was to improve the timeliness of these investigations so that -- they were taking a year-and-a-half, you know, tremendous amount of time and to get them down to a best practice of 60 days. That does create pressure on the system for through-put. But it also focused us on quality. And I want to make point about the issue of contractor conductive investigations.

  • 10:36:37

    FITZPATRICKTo reinforce, one, government clearances are granted by government official. That is according to the standards I described earlier and based on information collection that is done. Much of that information collection is done by government entities collecting data from records checks that only the government can collect.

  • 10:36:58

    FITZPATRICKIt's augmented by the investigation when someone needs to go to a courthouse and get a record. There's plenty of government investigators that do that and contractor investigators that do that. The issue is not who is conducting the investigation so much as is there a quality process in place to ensure that, at that high volume and high throughput, you're getting a quality investigation?

  • 10:37:22

    REHMJohn Fitzpatrick, he's director of the Information Security Oversight Office at the National Archives Records Administration. And let's not forget Aaron Alexis had an all-access pass which I want to understand better.

  • 10:40:02

    REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about security clearances for both government employees and contractors. As you all know, Aaron Alexis was no longer in the Navy. He was a contractor. He did have a clearance. However, he had what is called an all-access pass, and he brought a shotgun into the Navy Yard with him. How'd he do that, Carol?

  • 10:40:38

    LEONNIGOur reporting sees -- found, rather, that when he got the security clearance certified by his boss, The Experts, which is a subcontractor of Hewlett Packard, he then filled out the paperwork and received what's called a contractor access card. That gives him access to numerous installations of the Navy and the Marine Corps per the contract that he was working on, remember, updating computers.

  • 10:41:04

    LEONNIGSo his boss told me and my good colleagues, Ernesto Londoño and Matea Gold, that he was at Cherry Point, N.C., at Little Creek, Va., at Stafford, Va., in Bethesda, Md., in Newport, R.I., all in the span of these last several weeks. And finally the Navy Yard in the recent -- in recent days. He was able to go anywhere he wanted on any of those bases. You asked the good question, how does he get a gun onto base? He had -- did not have to go through a metal detector of any kind.

  • 10:41:37

    REHMWhy not?

  • 10:41:38

    LEONNIGI presume it has to do with having his CAC card. However, I've been told by several people who've gone on base with someone with a CAC card that they literally drive on base without any -- without showing any identification, that a person sitting next to somebody with a CAC card doesn't even have a body check or an ID check. So then he had the pieces of the gun broken down and the...

  • 10:42:06

    REHMPieces.

  • 10:42:07

    LEONNIGPieces of this shotgun and had them -- then he assembled them in the bathroom and went up to the fourth floor and began shooting.

  • 10:42:15

    REHMSo he was at the time employed by Hewlett Packard. Is that correct?

  • 10:42:22

    LEONNIGA company called The Experts, an IT firm that subcontracted with Hewlett Packard on this massive global computer IT contract.

  • 10:42:31

    REHMAnd have you and your other reporters been able to trace back how he received a clearance to work with Hewlett Packard?

  • 10:42:46

    LEONNIGWell, it's actually frighteningly simple. His clearance is good for 10 years after it was approved by the Defense Department. He was investigated by OPM, and it was approved in 2007. And it remained good and in force when the military contractor checked it in 2012 when they first hired him and, again, when they hired him for more hourly work here on the East Coast in July of 2013.

  • 10:43:16

    REHMMichael.

  • 10:43:16

    GREENBERGERWell, I mean, the amazing thing to me is it seems to me a quick fix here is that anybody who enters a military base or a military building has to go through a magnetometer. And if he was carrying even disassembled parts of a shotgun, that would have shown up. And, by the way, if they're just letting people with a CAC card get through, that's not a security clearance if they can walk through without a -- without any detection of whether they have metal equipment on them.

  • 10:43:46

    GREENBERGERAnd I think Carol's right. The practices -- a lot of people just drive into a parking lot, and they get through the whole thing. The other thing I wanted to say is I'm very sympathetic to the concern of collecting a lot of information as Orwellian, but this information is going into a confidential file. And if you don't have people like Snowden, it won't be released.

  • 10:44:07

    GREENBERGERAnd I think that the relatives of the 12 people who died would like to have seen an Orwellian documentation of this man. I think President Obama would have liked to have seen an Orwellian documentation of Manning's psychological state or the fact that Snowden had the keys to the kingdom and he didn't have a high school diploma. Now, maybe that's OK, but that's a red flag that should be investigated.

  • 10:44:36

    REHMAll right. And would you like to comment, Sheldon?

  • 10:44:39

    COHENWell, I think we're talking not only about three individuals now who have violated their obligations to the government, but 5 million people that hold security clearances, many, many millions more that have access to military installations and the rest of the country. And is this country ready to accept a solution, a process where everybody has all of their information, their school records, their medical records, every record on them put into a database that is monitored 24 hours a day by the government -- by some government employee?

  • 10:45:16

    COHENWe're already complaining about the NSA monitoring our phone records, and now you want to talk about a system where we're going to have the government monitoring everything about everybody that ever accumulated.

  • 10:45:27

    REHMBut, Sheldon, you're talking here about a man who had a government security clearance. That's not everybody. We're talking about security clearances, how significant or not significant they are. Are they or not?

  • 10:45:50

    GREENBERGERWell, they -- President Obama thinks they're significant. I mean, he...

  • 10:45:54

    REHMBut maybe he has a distorted idea of what's happened to...

  • 10:45:58

    GREENBERGERNo, no, no. I think the entire operation is to protect secrets that would, if they were released, do damage to the country.

  • 10:46:08

    REHMWe don't seem to be doing a very good job at that.

  • 10:46:10

    GREENBERGERNo, no, we're not. And that's why there needs to be a complete overhaul of the system. There can't be 5 million people with clearances. It's far too many, and we can't have contractors with clearances. And we can't have contractors who have an incentive to move through the investigation process quickly being -- having a financial incentive to complete these things without a full investigation. And I think it's important -- Carol pointed out that in the pilot program they found 20 percent of the people holding security clearances had information that was worthy of going back and checking it.

  • 10:46:46

    GREENBERGERAnd I think one other factor's been lost here is that a security clearance can be revoked. There's an automatic reinvestigate or recertification after so many years, but if you find out that somebody's done something that would be very damaging -- if that gets into the right hands -- and, unfortunately, here it didn't -- you can revoke the security clearance.

  • 10:47:07

    REHMAll right. Let's open the phones. We'll go first to Jason in Oklahoma City. Good morning, you're on the air.

  • 10:47:18

    JASONGood morning, Diane. You have a great show.

  • 10:47:19

    REHMThank you.

  • 10:47:20

    JASONYes, ma'am. I was a submariner -- a radioman on a submarine in the '90s, and I remember, when I got my background clearance -- background check for my security clearance, they interviewed a lot of people in my hometown, and there was a lot of human involvement and interviews and so forth. And I just wondered if that's -- if that's still going on or if that's a sign of the times a changing or if it was because I was in the military or what.

  • 10:47:47

    JASONAnd also one of the comments your guests made about some things that should have drawn attention to the guy before seemed like a more human involvement would have helped if they'd have carried through. I mean, you're not going to get a sailor -- not going to lose his security clearance for getting kicked out of a bar. That happens all the time. But some of the other things seemed, like the guy said, it should have -- it should have really drawn attention to his problems.

  • 10:48:12

    REHMAll right, Jason. Thanks for your call. John Fitzpatrick.

  • 10:48:17

    FITZPATRICKYes. Jason, it seems likely to me that given the access to special, perhaps special weapons or other special capabilities and as a submariner you would have had the highest level of clearance and investigation, which some -- the 1.2 million of those 5 million also have. So it's not a -- it's not a majority, but it's a -- still a large number. And in that instance, more investigative action is taken to verify identity and personal history.

  • 10:48:47

    REHMCarol, what about the Pentagon's inspector general's report? That had some interesting data in it as well.

  • 10:48:57

    LEONNIGYes, it did, Diane. And it's not exactly relevant to Alexis's situation.

  • 10:49:02

    REHMRight.

  • 10:49:03

    LEONNIGHowever, it's another indicator of a pretty serious deficiency in how the Navy granted access to contractors. In this program, which was scoldingly described by the IG, the Navy was trying to cut costs in terms of reviewing people who occasionally needed access to the base. I mean, I suppose this could include a Coca-Cola distributor. It could include a grass cutter. It could include a lot of different people who are not there routinely but need occasional access to the base.

  • 10:49:36

    LEONNIGAnd what the IG found is that 52 convicted felons had unescorted access to all parts of the base, including childcare centers and gymnasiums and family rooms. Some of them were convicted of child molestation. And it's called the Rapid Gate Program, and the IG recommended that it be immediately disbanded.

  • 10:50:07

    REHMSheldon Cohen, what do you make of that?

  • 10:50:08

    COHENWell, I don't have a security clearance except on a case by case basis. And when I go into a military installation or a government building, I have to go through a magnetometer. But there are 16,000 workers daily that are going into the naval base there in Washington, and I guess the Navy's made the judgment that they can't get their work done getting 16,000 people through screening everyone with a magnetometer, particularly if they've already been prescreened to get a security clearance or have one of these CAC cards. Maybe that's a judgment the Navy has to rethink about that one.

  • 10:50:44

    REHMAll right. Let's go to Yellow Springs, Ohio. Hi, Henry.

  • 10:50:50

    HENRYHi. Yes, please. Right now the U.S. military is going through all kinds of problems to get their people to go to the shrinks if, you know, they have some problem with something with the military people being afraid that it will be the end of their career. Basically, it's going to expand this with everybody afraid to turn themselves in if, you know, all of a sudden...

  • 10:51:27

    REHMOh, dear. I think we lost him. Go ahead, Michael.

  • 10:51:30

    GREENBERGERYeah -- no, I think that raises an excellent point here. And I think many people instinctively don't -- do not want to discourage, for example, military people seeking mental health help. In the first thing, the question is whether -- I know already, if you seek marriage counseling, grief counseling or you have post-traumatic stress syndrome, that's deemed to be outside -- it would be forgiving with regard to a security clearance.

  • 10:51:59

    GREENBERGERThe question here is, does somebody get the information? And on a confidential basis, it can be told to people if you seek mental health that will not be disqualifying, but if somebody is hearing people talking to them just what that -- what the Newport Police heard -- that is a major red flag. It's not somebody getting treatment for a routine psychosis.

  • 10:52:23

    REHMSo what is the obligation of the mental health professional of taking a close look at a person who says, I hear voices? They're telling me to do various things. Is that mental health professional required by law to report this to the individual's superiors, Sheldon Cohen?

  • 10:52:52

    COHENThey're required both by law and by their own medical ethics to report if they believe the person is a danger to themself or to others.

  • 10:53:00

    REHMBut if the question is asked, are you thinking about harming yourself? I say, no. Are you thinking about hurting anyone else? I say, no, but I'm hearing voices.

  • 10:53:18

    COHENThat's -- there is no obligation for that kind of information to be reported by health professionals.

  • 10:53:24

    LEONNIGBut doesn't it seem incredibly convenient for the VA to report that he didn't -- he told he did not intend to hurt himself or others? But the Rhode Island Police clearly viewed him as a harm to himself when he said he was hearing voices. It's such an interesting dichotomy.

  • 10:53:41

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show," Michael.

  • 10:53:45

    GREENBERGERYeah, the other thing I want to say about security clearances, you look at what the investigators have to look at, police records, mental health counseling, et cetera, et cetera, but when you look at the decision making process for mental health is, has the person been committed either involuntary or voluntary, that's a very high standard.

  • 10:54:03

    GREENBERGERI saw yesterday a major federal contractor with a poster giving advice to people seeking security clearances saying, you don't have to be perfect. And one of the things you could be not perfect about is committing a felony within the last 10 years. I don't know whether that was a typographical error or not, but it's just there as plain as day.

  • 10:54:24

    REHMJohn.

  • 10:54:25

    FITZPATRICKSo humans are not perfect, and the clearance process, as long as it has existed, has dealt with that issue. The standard for psychological conditions and how they factor into a clearance decision is not as high as whether or not you've been committed. It is whether or not your condition or treatment have the ability to impair your judgment and whether you do or do not observe your treatment.

  • 10:54:46

    REHMAll right. So short of reducing the number of security clearances from 5 million to say, 500,000, what improvements would you like to see, Michael?

  • 10:55:01

    GREENBERGERWell, I'm troubled by the 5 million figure, but leaving that to the side, John Hamre who was the deputy secretary of defense in the Clinton Administration, wrote a very thoughtful either op-ed or blog in The Post yesterday. And he said that we have the technology to give instant feedback on people who have security clearances.

  • 10:55:24

    GREENBERGERSo, for example, if the Newport Police said he was talking to somebody and that got reported to the Navy, the Navy should input that, and it would be in a database. Now, Sheldon's concern about invasion of privacy, I think there's a balance here between invasion of privacy and public safety.

  • 10:55:43

    REHMDo you agree, Sheldon?

  • 10:55:44

    COHENNo. I don't think invasion of privacy here for security clearance is an issue. I was talking about society at large, but the system that exists today is, whenever this information is brought forward, it is put into this database which is accessible to all security officials. The trouble here was the information was not put into that database. And that is a human error, not a systemic error.

  • 10:56:08

    REHMDo you agree with that, Carol?

  • 10:56:10

    LEONNIGI think the military -- we were interviewing Charles Sowell yesterday, a former deputy to Director Clapper, who was working on security clearance reform. And he thinks the system is broken precisely because everyone now can say all of our policies were followed, and yet this still happened. The policy allows someone to have a clearance for far too long, and it would have allowed many of these instances never to get into the so-called system.

  • 10:56:38

    REHMReform?

  • 10:56:39

    FITZPATRICKReforms. So, yes, one of the concepts in reform that is yet to be mechanized in the process is called continuous evaluation. How can we, between clearance investigations, pull this information that's relevant into the decision making system?

  • 10:56:52

    REHMJohn Fitzpatrick, Sheldon Cohen, Carol Leonnig, Michael Greenberger -- a very, very important and confusing and complicated issue. It's going to be fascinating as to where this goes from here. Thank you all.

  • 10:57:13

    LEONNIGThank you.

  • 10:57:13

    COHENThank you.

  • 10:57:14

    LEONNIGThank you, Diane.

  • 10:57:14

    REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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