The Great Security Clearance Misinformation Campaign Continues

Foreign Policy has an article up on its website that adds to the body of misleading and ill-informed writing and journalism on security clearances and their role in two high-profile recent episodes–Edward Snowden, the NSA document leaker and Aaron Alexis, the Navy Yard Shooter. The photo above the article is a surveillance camera shot of Alexis at Navy Yard. While the article can’t really be faulted on much of what it presents–that there contracting out the background investigation part of the clearance process has had some problems–it fails in linking that to either Snowden or Alexis save for the incident in which Alexis was arrested (but not charged) for shooting out the tires of his neighbor’s car in 2007 (more on the debatable aspect of that later). Indeed, it goes with the same narrative and implication of “something was missed” when it characterizes Alexis as having a history of mental illness as every news outlet does. While this is true, it’s irrelevant to the case the case being made that the security clearance process is broken. For a SECRET clearance, which Alexis was granted by the Navy, there is no mental health examination (as there would be for a Top Secret clearance for someone working for an intelligence agency). And Alexis had never been treated for mental illness nor committed to a mental health facility. That he was granted a clearance despite possibly being mentally ill could be attributed to a process that doesn’t dig deep enough; but that is not where the author accuses the system of failing. The contractors could have followed their directive to the letter, (and they indeed say they did: “USIS, which vetted Snowden and Alexis, said in a statement released at the June congressional hearing that OPM had informed the company its investigation met all standards, and that the government did not request for additional information or interviews.”) and they would have never discovered anything out about Alexis’ mental health issue. The NYT pretty much got it right

As an honorably discharged veteran, he cleared a basic hurdle to receive a Defense Department security pass. Despite his being investigated by police departments in Seattle and Fort Worth, for firing a gun in anger, no charges were filed that would have shown up in his F.B.I. fingerprint file. Despite mental health issues — he twice went to Veterans Affairs hospitals last month seeking treatment for insomnia — he was never committed and so was legally able in Virginia to buy the weapon the police said he used in the shootings.

The Foreign Policy article also, again, tiredly continues the conflation of a security clearance with base access: “The other gave access to Navy Yard contractor Aaron Alexis, whose shooting spree there on Sept. 16 killed 12 other people.” Even if Alexis had no clearance at all and worked whatever job for the Navy of a DoD contractor, he would have had a CAC (Common Access Card–essentially your DoD ID) allowing him access tot he base (and many others in the DC area and around the country). It has nothing to do with holding a security clearance. Every single member of the U.S. armed forces has a CAC card and clearance or not, they could walk right onto the Nay Yard base with it.  Is that clear enough? CAC card = base access.

The Snowden matter is even more egregious and the article throws Snowden’s name out there but make zero connection to how the clearance process was at fault in his leak of classified documents. People with clearances have done that before. They’re called spies and traitors. You may have read something about people like this in the news. Or this guy. Or this other Navy guy. What do those guys have in common? All had clearances. All had Top Secret clearances and would have undergone much, much more closer scrutiny than Alexis. Snowden, like these others made a decision based on his personal feelings. Could the clearance and investigation process have done a better job at uncovering some wavering loyalty? Maybe. I don’t think so; but it’s a valid question. But that isn’t the point this article makes when it disingenuously tries to link Snowden’s actions to a flawed clearance process. In fact it doesn’t even try to make the link. It just drops Snowden’s name and says “He did bad things. See? System broken.”

The article points out some clear areas where change is needed in the process. But then it proceeds to use Alexis and Snowden (and curiously enough not Bradley Manning) as shock value rather than supporting evidence.

Unanswered Questions about the NSA and Edward Snowden

There has been plenty of media coverage of the Edward Snowden case and yet as with a number of national security “insider” type stories, I’m struck by how little the media seems to understand many of the nuances, rules, and general practices of the U.S. foreign/defense/intelligence apparatus. And it’s not because such knowledge is classified. I don’t really have an explanation other than willful ignorance or simply no one points repeatedly and vociferously the shortcomings. In any case, here are some questions I have that I haven’t seen answered:

1. Why/how did Mr. Snowden have access to the information he leaked. If it was Sensitive Compartmented information, why did an IT contractor have access to policy memos and the like?

2. Is Mr. Snowden fronting for someone else (my guess)? I’d like to hear him asked this question. So much of what he’s said makes no sense — e.g. why he didn’t fly directly to Iceland; could he or could he know wiretap (his words) anyone?

3. Why does the NSA need to collect all the telephony metadata? Why can’t it be more targeted?

4. How many actual terrorist plots in full development on targets inside the U.S. were thwarted with significant assistance from the PRISM and other NSA programs?

5. Are there classified transcripts of all the briefings Congressmen have received over the years on these NSA programs?

6. Why are we so focused on terrorism? If we are willing to compromise civil liberties for safety and security against terrorism, why not plain old fashioned violent crime here? Especially gun violence?

Food for though.

The Curious Case of Dennis Rodman


Dennis Rodman went to North Korea. Dennis Rodman met the new North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un–the first American to do so. Dennis Rodman is a former professional basketball player. Dennis Rodman is probably smart in his own way, but he is not a scholar of international relations. I don’t recall him every claiming to be. But that didn’t the media (and the State Department) from marching forth on an equally bizarre narrative and coverage of this event. The State Department said it would not debrief Rodman on the trip, despite by most accounts no one in the U.S. government even knowing if the North Korean leader even speaks English. What has happened to “all options are on the table”? In all seriousness, it is hard to understand this peculiar reaction which has most just been to ridicule both Rodman and Kim Jong-un. George Stephanopoulos seemed unaware of who Rodman is, getting all serious in his interview with him as if Rodman were a politician. Did I mention that Rodman is a former basketball player? The underlying sentiment is that Rodman has done some harm to…something I’m not quite clear on. After all he didn’t highjack high-level negotiations. He didn’t travel there illegally. He didn’t misrepresent his credentials. What exactly did Dennis Rodman do wrong? It really seems to boil down to “we don’t North Korea” and “Dennis Rodman is weird.”

On Sunday, along came this “debate” in the NYT about celebrity diplomacy. The question at hand is “Can celebrities like Rodman, Bono or Angelina Jolie who get involved in diplomacy or antipoverty efforts offer a useful diplomatic service, or are they just putting pretty and recognizable faces on complicated and unwieldy issues?” There’s just one problem (actually several but that’s for a later post). Rodman never said he was going as an ambassador or citizen diplomat. He went on basketball tour. And one might ask, isn’t any contact with the so-called Hermit Kingdom good, at least on an intelligence level? George Kennan, the estimable American diplomat and scholar spent time chatting with a prostitute in Hamburg during World War II just to better get a sense of the city, its people and his surroundings. Perhaps its a stretch, but if someone as prescient as Kennan saw value in collecting intelligence from a prostitute (he bought her a drink and cigarettes in a cafe and paid her usual fee in exchange for the chat), then what’s wrong with going with flow on the Rodman visit? The interesting thing is that it’s journalists (State notwithstanding) who seem to have the biggest issue with this. Real diplomats don’t seem to have a problem with it and indeed see value and lessons that can be gleaned from the entire episode. What would Kennan have thought?

Iran nuclear

The Carnegie Endowment’s Karim Sadjadpour was on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday today to discuss the Iranian nuclear situation. (He was also on Fareed Zakaria.) Sadjadpour always has interesting and insightful things to say on Iran. Today, I found his positive assessment of the Obama administration’s handling of the situation most interesting. His contention is managing the situation–that is keeping Iran at about the status quo while implicitly signaling that no military action is in the offing–has amounted to a successful policy. I wouldn’t disagree. It is continually interesting to read experts and pseudo-experts grapple with this crisis. So many analyses and requisite “Dealing with a Nuclear Iran” reports amount to proposing that and hoping the U.S. can get something for nothing in terms of negotiations. It reminds one of the Bush contention that if Iran would just stop enriching uranium, the U.S. would sit down with them to talk about their not enriching uranium, a stance which Colin Powell characterized as ridiculous.

The minimum wage, the media, and public policy

This isn’t a post so much about foreign policy. Rather it’s about public policy and the media. This has implications for foreign policy as well. After President Obama called for an increase in the minimum wage in his SOTU address, I have been surprised at the “debate” that has ensued. Let me address why I put debate in quotes and why I’m surprised before moving to the crux of this post. I’m surprised because it seems like we have this debate every time a suggestion of an increase or an actual increase in the minimum wage is made.  And it also seems to me that the way things go down is like this every time: the proposal is made; opponents say it will only hurt businesses whose bottom line will be affected thereby in the end affecting negatively the very same workers who the increase is supposed to help; economists say “no” that’s not how it works; the economists are proven correct; we wait until the next proposal and rinse and repeat. That’s both my surprise and why I write “debate.”

A story on NPR this morning took up the debate (and now that I look for the link I note that the story is titled “The politics of raising the minimum wage” which takes some of the wind out my sails). The issue I raise is that Scott Simon, the NPR host, poses this question: “Does raising the minimum wage help families if it discourages hiring?” Fair question. My beef? Who does he turn to for an answer? An economist? No, a journalist. In this case David Leonhardt, the Washington bureau chief of the New York Times. I’m sure Leonhardt understands more than basic economics and with a bachelor’s degree in applied math from Yale, is a really smart guy. But why do so many media outlets today turn to non-specialists when there are so many scholars out there that could put a more decisive and rigorous stamp on the argument? You know, maybe like a Nobel prize winning economist, who might also write a column for the paper of record and a blog. And wait, what if that same Nobel laureate addressed the issue? NPR is generally much better than other news outlets, especially television in doing exactly what I’m complaining that they didn’t do in this case — go to a bona fide expert. And this brings me to the foreign policy aspect of this. Those same news outlets seem loath to go to actual experts when discussion foreign affairs. They’d rather put a political spin on issues and invited politicians to weigh in. Granted some politicians, e.g. the newly installed secretary of state have plenty of foreign policy chops. But is John Kerry for example an expert on Syria even though he’s spent time there? I would argue not. Why such reluctance to engage experts? Blogs and social media make them so much more accessible today. Wonder who you might call for comment on Syria? Maybe a scholar who writes a blog called SYRIA COMMENT. Don’t get me wrong. Many news outlets, especially print and radio do this (BBC being an excellent example). But for a large part of policy discussions, the media would rather approach the issues as one of politics and sidestep expert opinion in favor of political, and often ill-informed commentary. That’s a shame and completely unjustifiable these days.

More on drones

Micah Zenko has this piece up a Foreign Policy. It’s subheading is “Why the Pentagon Hates Obama’s Drone War” which is an overstatement and not supported by the article that follows. But the article highlights some important issues. Have drones become the end rather than the means? Collateral damage. And can we kill our way to a war’s end? Zenko quotes a Navy captain saying, “Drones are an example of technology outpacing our morality and thinking.” (Though without offering any proof Zenko says that thinking is widespread among his peers across service branches, which I’m not sure I believe.) A sidenote, Zenko also write “I have met very few people in uniform who think killing another person is in any way ‘tough’ or ‘cool’.” He must travel in very limited circles. But give it a read.

On Korea

Is it me or despite the requisite White House response and even Chinese condemnation, the overall reaction to North Korea’s third nuclear explosive test has bee a collective yawn? Is it the Pope effect? Looking around the Internets, there’s not much in the way of any interesting analysis. Mostly, there are the general and expected reports–where, potential yield, here are questions we have and here are the same old approaches that the international community should take in response. This is not a criticism, just a notable curiosity.

At the same time, this blog post from the Cable purports to note the lack of Korea expertise at top levels in the Obama administration. The problem I would note with this post is that it does not say whether the dearth extends below the assistant secretary level. Sure Kurt Campbell, A/S for East Asian and Pacific Affairs is leaving, and the Cable touts him as having extensive Korea experience (which is not the same as expertise), but what about the rest of the bureau? What Korea expertise is there? What about the functional bureaus like International Security and Nonproliferation (ISN)? Is there Korea expertise there? ISN has an entire office devoted to regional issues. I would ask the same question about the other agencies and sub-agencies mentioned. The title of the article mentions the lack of Korea hands in “leadership.” But frankly, it’s those below the top leadership that will have relatively more time to think about the issues rather than attended an endless stream of meeting each day. Maybe is dearth all the way down, but I think that’s a more important question to ask and answer than looking strictly at the top.

Blowback redux?


Last week’s NYT (and WaPo) article caused a stir for revealing that CIA operates a base in Saudi Arabia from which drone strikes are conducted in the Arabian Peninsula. Something that came to mind more as I read and listened to other news outlets comment on the revelation was the irony that the U.S. was operating from this base in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Osama Bin Laden. One of Bin Laden’s (many) grievances was the presence of U.S. troops in the Saudi Kingdom in 1990s. And of course he went on to direct several strikes at the U.S. and its interests culminating in the 9/11 attacks. One wonders whether anyone in government has considered this curiosity. That is might there be a repeat of unintended consequences related to the U.S. conducting a series of strikes from this base–strikes that sometimes have killed civilians and are somewhat unpopular in the Middle East. Most ironic is that these strikes, part of the effort to battle al-Qaida, emanate from the country where the presence of U.S. troops originally incensed the dead al-Qaida leader inspiring him to sponsor a series of attacks directed at the United States which in turn touched off an epic and seemingly never ending counterterrorism response part of which now has located a base back in the Saudi Kingdom.

Perhaps a larger question is, how is the U.S. (or should) the U.S. thinking about future blowback? As combat operations in Iraq and soon Afghanistan come to an end, will there be any negative legacies in the form of grievances related to the occupations (and continuing drone strikes) that embody themselves in an nouvelle OBL? I have no idea the answer to that question nor a fully satisfying answer to the question of whether it has been considered in any circles within the U.S. government. I do know that the Policy Planning staff at the State Department informally discussed the possible negative repercussions of drone strikes. Whether this amounted to a memo or something concrete for the secretary of state to consider I don’t know. The September 11, 2001 attacks had a lingering effect on marginalizing serious thinking and questioning on the unintended effects of U.S. foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. That questioning was often, loudly, branded as blaming the victim. Maybe now it’s time to seriously consider possible repercussions.