Concerned Foreign Service Officers is a group of current and former employees of the U.S. Department of State who are concerned about abuses of the security clearance process in the Department of State. The group was created in July 2005 to investigate, document and expose apparent misuse of the security clearance process to circumvent federal labor laws and established personnel practices. The group asserts that the State Department is increasingly misusing a poorly managed and poorly regulated security clearance process to circumvent personnel regulations, to bypass equal employment opportunity and other civil-rights laws, to avoid due process in the established discipline and suitability processes and to punish dissenters and whistle blowers within the agency. The cases of primary interest to us are so-called "adverse-action" cases where the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) has decided to suspend or revoke clearances of employees who have already been cleared, and may have held a security clearance for years or decades. There are many cases where, in response to allegations of many types, including allegations of whistle blowing, dissenting viewpoints, or minor acts of possible misfeasance unrelated to national security, DS suspends clearances in order to conduct long term investigations, almost always culminating in a recommendation to revoke the clearance. There is a lot of evidence that the process is being abused as a "special" personnel tool, to enable the agency to circumvent prohibited personnel practices. We have also noted many improprieties in other areas of the process. Through review of security clearance cases, Concerned Foreign Service Officers has documented improper and coercive interview techniques, fraudulent statements in investigative reports, suppression or destruction of evidence, improper seizure of personal property, misapplication of security regulations and numerous other improprieties in DS security clearance cases. We have noted numerous cases of security clearance suspension or revocation for minor alleged infractions bearing no relation to the security of the United States. Often the allegations leading to clearance suspension or revocation are decades old, identified or resurrected during lengthy DS fishing expeditions directed at targeted individuals. These improprieties in the clearance review process threaten the national security of the United States by reducing the reliability and integrity of State Department security operations, by reducing the effectiveness of the Foreign Service, by directly damaging ongoing programs and by inhibiting the expression of dissenting views within the Foreign Service.
Effective operations depend on effective personnel. The security clearance process is not a law enforcement process and should not be conducted by the law-enforcement arm of an agency. It is a personnel process that should, however, be conducted separately from the other personnel processes of the agency. Because the security clearance process determines who can or cannot work in an agency, and to which positions they can be assigned, security clearance determinations have a greater effect on recruitment, operations, and individual careers than any other personnel action. The State Department devotes significant efforts to recruitment, training and retention of employees. It uses expert professionals to seek out the best applicants, to promote diversity and a representative workforce, to devise effective training, and to assign existing personnel to the positions which most effectively use their skills and expertise to advance national interests and protect national security. The recruitment, assignment and promotion processes are carefully managed, reviewed and regulated by laws ensuring effective operations, objective practices and the protection of employee rights. Ironically, any stage of this multi-layered, multifaceted, carefully-managed and reasoned personnel process can be undone by a single overzealous security agent, with little oversight, virtually no due process, and complete exemption from nearly every law and regulation governing personnel practices. Under the leadership installed by the Bush administration, any allegation, no matter how minor, how spurious, how irrational, or however motivated, initiates an investigative process that will terminate only when an actionable derogatory charge can be identified. In the cases of concern to our group, when allegations of misfeasance have not been substantiated, DS, rather than clearing the employee (as should be done when an allegation is not substantiated), embarks on lengthy fishing expeditions in order to find any other reason to revoke the clearance. The average length of these investigations is two and a half years and they rarely reveal information with obvious relevance to national security. Some investigations have continued unresolved for over six years.
According to government-wide standards, a clearance decision should be based on a whole-person evaluation, which must consider all known factors together and weigh them against all that is known about the person. In order to ensure a fair whole-person evaluation, the adjudication is supposed to be based on a special type of investigation, called a Personnel Security Background Investigation, which is conducted solely for the purpose of evaluating eligibility for a clearance. A PSBI must, by law, endeavor to collect positive information in addition to any derogatory allegations.
Current practice in DS, however, is to base "adverse-action" cases solely on investigations conducted in order to attempt to develop a disciplinary or criminal case. Such investigations do not collect the same type of information as that required in a PSBI. When the adjudicator is provided only derogatory allegations, and no positive information, a proper whole-person evaluation is impossible. The allegations on which the adverse-action investigations are based almost never concern criminal acts, or even violations of regulation.
While these lengthy investigations are being performed, the employee's security clearance is suspended and the employee cannot be assigned to any normal position in the agency. He or she spends his or her days doing make-work, or in some cases, doing nothing at all, for two or three years. Experienced officers in whom the agency has invested large amounts of training are sidelined and unavailable for use by the agency.
The process is devastating to the employee and his or her family. The employee is curtailed from his or her overseas assignment unexpectedly, pulling children out of school and spouses out of jobs and incurring considerable unplanned personal expense to establish a new household in Washington, sometimes for the very first time. The employee incurs legal fees often amounting to tens of thousands of dollars. Currently, there is a ninety percent chance that when the ordeal is over, the employee will be fired for cause. Not because the employee worked badly or committed a crime, but because he or she "failed to maintain a clearance," a matter beyond the employee's control.
If this happens, the employee may well lose his or her pension. Many Foreign Service Officers (those under the "old" retirement system) are not vested in Social Security, so they will not even get Social Security benefits.
It is easy to underestimate the pain and suffering this process causes to the subjects of this process. Nobody has been killed (though two have committed suicide). Nobody has lost a limb. Nobody has been falsely imprisoned. On the other hand, people who have worked all their lives in the service of our country have lost their life's savings, have been forced to liquidate their retirement accounts or sell their family homes to pay legal fees; people who have served our country well and faithfully have been falsely branded as untrustworthy and have lost not only their jobs but also the possibility of ever getting any other job with any government agency, or with anyone who checks on the reason why they left their government careers before retirement age. The vast majority of victims continue their lives dramatically impoverished, and must often restart their lives from scratch, learning new skills and professions after years or decades of building a profession in what had been their chosen field. Lives have been devastated, reputations permanently destroyed, families uprooted, and marriages often destroyed in the process. The process has been described as "a slow motion friendly-fire incident" (a reference to soldiers accidentally injured or killed by their own military) but unlike friendly fire, which is always investigated and taken seriously, cases of security clearance abuse are never investigated, and "national security" or "the employee's privacy" is inevitably invoked as a means of hiding the truth. Even when criminal actions have been demonstrated in the processing of individual cases, no DS agent has ever been disciplined or held accountable for such actions.
The process damages the efficiency of the service and national security: Clearances are suspended and employees recalled without any preliminary thought either to the reasonableness of the allegations or to the effects on the mission of the State Department. In many cases, projects vital to the State Department's mission and to national security have been disrupted or even halted because DS has recalled and sidelined a key employee while they "investigate" a minor or spurious allegation. Numerous observers have noted the dangerous effects of such overzealousness on freedom of expression or dissent in the State Department. The clearance process has become the single-most-frequently-abused tool to punish dissenters and ensure internal compliance with the "party line." It is also expensive; a typical investigation costs half a million dollars or more just in resettlement costs and salary payments to sidelined employees.
In addition to potential abuse of the clearance system to punish dissenters and whistle-blowers, Concerned Foreign Service Officers has identified cases involving ethnic, religious, sexual orientation and other biases, use of clearance suspension to avoid due process in disciplinary cases, and serious improprieties in the investigative and adjudication processes. These actions, increasingly conducted by newly-hired and minimally-trained security agents, directly impact ongoing activities in every area of State Department operations and are conducted without regard to their impact on operations, resource management, national security and foreign-relations activities.
The mission of Concerned Foreign Service Officers is to lobby for greater oversight, rationalization and regulation of this process. Protection of national security information is vital to the protection of American lives and liberty. Abuse of the security clearance process does not protect national security information. It only makes a mockery of those principles which Foreign Service Officers are sworn to protect.