By William Fisher
As the US struggles to fill critical posts in its diplomatic missions overseas - including its massive new embassy in Baghdad -- the State Department is suspending the security clearances of dozens of experienced Foreign Service Officers based on flimsy allegations or bogus accusations.
This is the charge being made by an organization known as Concerned Foreign Service Officers (CFSO), which charges that security clearances often remain suspended for years, thus preventing the employee from doing the work for which he or she has been trained. CFSO is calling for an overhaul of the Department's diplomatic security management and practices.
And another State Department official says the practices of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security have turned it into "the State Department's own version of Guantanamo."
CFSO says that once a security clearance is suspended, it often takes years to complete an investigation, and most suspensions ultimately lead to revocation. "For a Foreign Service Officer, losing a security clearance is tantamount to losing a job. Diplomats with suspended clearances are given desk jobs in Washington that require little or none of their expertise and experience. Experienced officers in whom the agency has invested large amounts of training are sidelined and unavailable for use by the agency."
CFSO charges that the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) within 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 whistleblowers within the agency."
It claims that security clearance investigations are increasingly being carried out by inexperienced personnel, thus greatly extending the period during which a diplomat with a suspended clearance is unable to do any meaningful work.
The organization adds that these "acts of diplomatic security misfeasance and incompetence threaten the national security of the United States by reducing the reliability and integrity of State Department security operations...."
Other officials at State corroborate the situation. One of them is David Firestein. During his successful candidacy for a seat on the Board of Governers of the influential American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the professional association of the US Foreign Service, Firestein wrote that the tactics at the DS Bureau are analogous to the those used at the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
He wrote that "... Even in the absence of a single DS allegation of wrongdoing whatsoever, the employee is nevertheless: barred from bidding (at least, in the normal sense); barred from getting an overseas posting...; barred from taking long-term training (which virtually never requires a security clearances to undertake); barred from getting promoted; barred from being considered for certain major awards; and, generally, relegated to an altogether marginal and meager professional existence. And again, this is in the absence of even one allegation of wrongdoing!"
He added that an employee whose security clearances has been suspended has "no rights during this period of professional limbo: no right to know what charge, if any, is being leveled against him; no right to know when such a charge (if there ultimately is one) will be brought against him; no right to know where the 'investigation' stands procedurally; no right to discovery or due process of any kind; no access to the grievance process; and, in many cases, no right even to see the evidence that DS is marshalling against the employee (which is often classified). And, once again, all this, in the absence of even a single allegation - let alone hard proof! - of wrongdoing on the part of the employee."
Firestein asked, "Does all this have a familiar ring to it? He wrote, "If you've followed the news out of a certain base in Cuba, it should. This is the State Department's own version of Guantanamo."
Firestein has also written: "Though we all understand that DS has a legitimate and important role to play in securing our Department, its personnel and the sensitive information those personnel are charged to handle, this bureau's documented propensity to flout Department rules and, in particular, punitively drag out clearance adjudications for many years should trouble all of us."
Firestein joined the Foreign Service in 1992, and served at US embassies in Beijing and Moscow, as well as at State's headquarters in Washington.
Many members of CFSO are victims of this process. CFSO is a group of current and former State Department employees concerned about recent abuses of the security clearance process in the department. The organization was created in 2005 to investigate, document and expose apparent misuse of the security clearance process to circumvent federal labor laws and established personnel practices.
CFSO has slightly more than 60 members, of whom about half have either had their clearances suspended or revoked. Eight of its members are retired, including two former ambassadors. The rest are State Department employees in good standing.
CFSO says it 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."
The group charges that there are "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."
The prevailing "get-em" culture of the DS means that "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," the group says.
Daniel Hirsch, a member of CFSO's Executive Committee, is an example. A Foreign Service Officer for 21 years, Hirsch requested an assignment in Iraq or Afghanistan in 2002. Previously he had worked in hardship posts in Africa, Central Asia and the Balkans. In 2003, DS began a security clearance investigation into Hirsch's life based on he and his wife having sought marital counseling at their last post in Turkmenistan. That counseling prompted suspicions of spousal abuse, even though his wife has repeatedly denied any such abuse in writing.
Hirsch's security clearance remains suspended while the State Department continues its investigation. Meanwhile, he is ineligible to serve in any overseas post.
Hirsch says he has been kept in the dark about the investigation's findings and possible outcome. "DS maintains that they do not even have to establish any facts in order to revoke a clearance, much less suspend one," he says.
"I'm just waiting while my career is being destroyed."
Hirsch estimates that security clearances have been suspended at the rate of two or three per month during the past five years.
Les Hickman, a Foreign Service Officer since 1978, had his clearance suspended in November 2002, based, he says, on "allegations, nothing factual."
At that time, Hickman was the US consul in Amman, Jordan. The State Department discovered that one of his local Jordanian employees was accepting bribes to rush through the paperwork for visa applications from Iraqis, who required special screening following the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Hickman had issued instructions that all Iraqi cases be referred to him, because his junior officers did not understand the State's new instructions and were making mistakes. But because only he and the local employee had access to those applications, the State Department suspected the consul might be involved in the fraud scheme as well. His clearance was suspended, and he was relieved of his duties.
The investigation found that bribes had been taken only from Jordanians and not Iraqis, and it produced no evidence that Hickman played any part in the scheme. Hickman contended he knew nothing about it, and the Jordanian employee said he had acted alone.
But State then accused Hickman of abusing his power by forbidding anyone else in the consulate to handle the Iraqi applications.
Hickman was last interviewed by DS in June 2004, and says he cannot understand why State allows cases like his to drag on for years when critical diplomatic posts remain vacant.
Bruce Knotts, a 23-year veteran of the Foreign Service, was the deputy chief of mission in Banjul, Gambia. In February 2004, a local security guard accused him of making a sexual pass at him. "That never happened, although I am gay," Knotts says, "but the guard's story was that he refused, and I turned around and left. Nevertheless, they gave me 24 hours to leave the embassy."
Last December, DS recommended that his clearance be revoked. It denied his first appeal, and he retired in March of this year, rather than prolong the appeals process.
In an open letter to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Knotts recalled how the State Department once used the Cold War as an excuse to purge gay and lesbian Foreign Service Officers. He wrote:
"Since the 1980s the State Department made significant strides to promote diversity among its staff. Ironically, under your administration, at a time when the Department is publicly unveiling new initiatives allegedly aimed at further increasing diversity, the Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security has once again begun using an open-ended political war, this time the War on Terror, as a similar cover to once again attack gays, lesbians and others it doesn't like."
One of the "catch-22s" involved in DS investigations is that once a diplomat's security clearance is suspended, he or she may be unable to see the evidence that is being considered by the State Department. A second problem is that investigations are increasingly being carried out by inexperienced personnel.
The State Department says there are up to 30 security clearance suspensions every year from among the approximately 40,000 State Department employees and contractors who hold security clearances at any given time. CFSO claims there have been more than 200 security clearance suspensions over the past five years, many affecting its own members. But it adds that the number of employees with suspensions at any one time is larger than the number suspended each year, because many cases go unresolved for years.
In addition to potential abuse of the clearance system to punish dissenters and whistleblowers, CFSO says it 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 organization charges.
CFSO says the cases of primary interest to them involve a DS decision to suspend or revoke clearances of employees who have been cleared previously, and may have held a security clearance for years or decades. It contends that there are many cases where, in response to allegations of such actions as whistleblowing, expressing dissenting viewpoints, or committing 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.
Hirsch contends that State's security clearance problems began with a "massive buildup" of DS engineered by Frank Taylor, tapped by then Secretary of State Colin Powell and appointed by President Bush in 2002 as Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security and Director of the Office of Foreign Missions. Taylor, who is now a senior security officer for the General Electric Company, served as a military officer for more than 30 years.
Hirsch says Taylor "brought in a large number of untrained and inexperienced security agents, leading to a situation in which five out of every six agents have been with the Department for less than five years." Hirsch contends that Taylor and his deputy, Don Reid, "together fostered a military security mentality based on a military code of conduct that does not apply to the Foreign Service."
Today the DS is supervised by Richard J. Griffin, who has the rank of Ambassador, and who came to State from the Secret Service. Of the top leadership in DS, there is only one career officer.
The DS Bureau did not return phone calls seeking to arrange for an interview for this article.
According to Hirsch, the adjudication process is still takes far too much time. "We are aware of six cases that have been open more than four years, roughly 20 cases that have been pending more than three years, and another 20 or so currently open cases that are less than three years old. We know of eighteen cases where people have resigned rather than go through the process, and three cases where people have been fired after losing their clearances," he says.
But CFSO maintains, "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," the organization says.
It adds, "It is easy to underestimate the pain and suffering this process causes to the subjects of this process. Nobody has been killed. 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."
According to the CFSO, "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', 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."
In addition to potential abuse of the clearance system to punish dissenters and whistleblowers, CFSO claims it 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."
The organization says that four out of every six DS agents is new. "The State Department provides them a brief orientation course -- and basic training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco Ga. where they learn generalized professional skills preparing them to 'develop a case, write and execute search warrants, write a criminal complaint, obtain an indictment, arrest a defendant, and testify in a suppression hearing', but does not train them in the specialized knowledge needed to conduct unbiased background investigations in a complex overseas setting," the CFSO says, adding:
"It is as if the State Department were to send out consular officers who had been fully trained to use the consular computer systems and visa machines, but not trained either in the Immigration and Naturalization Act, nor in the culture/economics of the region or country of service). Their background prepares them to conduct focused investigations aimed at criminal cases, not objective, unbiased collection of data for clearance adjudication."
AFSA's Foreign Affairs Council, an influential non-partisan umbrella group of 11 organizations concerned about US diplomatic readiness, concurs. In a report, the Council charged that "Serious due-process problems plague a number of officers whose security clearances have been suspended. It usually takes several years for DS to decide whether to revoke the clearance or not. During these years the officers languish in make-work positions. For reasons related to both managerial efficiency and humane treatment of employees, this security clearance revocation process needs a much higher priority and a much shorter duration."
Truthout asked a senior State Department official about the motivation of DS Bureau personnel. Speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss this subject publicly, he said, "The DS Bureau is the most conservative of all bureaus at State. The Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM) envisages that, in normal cases, the maximum duration of security clearance suspensions should be 90 days. But DS consistently flouts the Department's rules and is rarely challenged. It has created its own subculture.
"To those responsible for investigating 'wrongdoing' by suspending security clearances, the basic mentality is that a Foreign Service Officer overseas talking with any foreigner is suspect - even though these contacts are an essential part of their responsibilities. And once a security clearance is suspended, it is simply safer to leave it suspended - often for years.
"The reason is that decision to revoke a security clearance gives the aggrieved employee some real rights for the first time in the process. He or she can question the basis for the suspension, demand to see DS's evidence, confront his or her accuser, if there is one, and begin a formal appeals process. If that process results in a DS decision being reversed, DS is left with egg on its face. So it's a lot safer just to leave the employee in limbo."
He added, "These are the kinds of tactics we would expect to find in a dictatorship or in a police state, not in a service dedicated to introducing transparency into such governments. It is a travesty that this is happening to so many of our dedicated public servants."