Austin Bay

The phone rang and the caller identified himself as an investigator conducting a background check to update a high-level security clearance. He asked if he could speak to me, within the next 24 hours, regarding the "individual concerned". The investigation had "high priority".

The "individual concerned," a friend of mine, had fired me a heads-up email. The email's early morning date-time-group added edge to his request. A developing crisis required his skills, but he couldn't tackle the mission until his clearance was validated. Austin, tell 'em what you know when they ask.

The investigator came to my home. Though the "individual concerned" had carried a clearance for decades and had a spotless record, the investigator was thorough. Oh, was he so thorough. He asked. I answered the easy ones and then the hard ones, the ones that get to the grit.

The "individual concerned" received the absolutely necessary security validation. He deserved it. Moreover, the American people and several million people in an unfortunate place benefited from his expertise.

U.S. government security clearances matter a great deal, particularly when "the individual concerned" is working in or with a diplomatic, military, security or intelligence service.

Clearances matter because the jobs handled by "the individuals concerned" can have and often do have access to information that will either save lives or get Americans and American allies killed. In other words, the ability to securely handle life and death information is the bottom line determination -- or it is supposed to be.

People aren't perfect and, unfortunately, no security clearance system is perfect. A certain number of frauds, sociopaths and enemy spies have always managed to con investigators, beat the initial security clearance investigation process and then evade the subsequent internal security assurance system.

That said, I've concluded the current security clearance process is seriously flawed. Let's start with the alleged Washington Navy Yard mass murderer Aaron Alexis. Alexis had a secret clearance. He apparently needed a secret clearance to get into the Navy Yard. Now, secret clearances are not quite what they used to be. Today, almost anything is secret (as in the classification), even if it is common public knowledge. That may be one of the problems we need to address: over-classification.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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