Welcome to the 21st-century party, pals. Those who have experienced the process of acquiring a security clearance from the federal government know just how invasive and personal it can become, depending on the level of access needed to classified material. Investigators go through financial records, tax returns, and interview family, friends, and even co-workers and neighbors to determine whether the risk is manageable.
What they haven’t done is look on the Internet to read publicly available statements. Until now, anyway:
The government will start reviewing social media posts as part of background checks for employees seeking security clearance.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper signing off on the new policy on Thursday. As part of the policy, investigators will be able to mine publicly available posts, but cannot ask individuals to provide their private passwords.
“It may surprise many readers to know the government only now is codifying its approach to the virtual lives of the people it entrusts with real secrets,” William Evanina, who leads the National Counterintelligence and Security Center said.
What was the hold-up? Evanina claims that they have been working on a policy for a long time in an attempt to keep from infringing on civil liberties. That doesn’t make much sense, however. The entire process is an intrusion on just about every civil liberty, granted by the permission of those who seek the clearance. The government has no right otherwise to peek into your bank accounts, or to talk to your neighbors and co-workers to determine the status of your loyalty to the country. It’s necessary, but it’s about as Big Brother-ish as it gets.
Anyone who has ever been on either side of a clearance investigation already knows this, especially again when the clearance levels get more restrictive. Investigators ask very personal questions and often collect gossip and unsubstantiated claims about the subject of the investigation. All of that raw data goes into the file, whether later proven correct or incorrect, which is why the security of those files are of critical national importance. When the Bill Clinton White House ended up with the raw files of more than 700 people, that became a big scandal, and rightly so — as subjects of these investigations are assured that political operatives like Craig Livingstone (a Democratic campaign operative who had no business handling those files) would never have access to that information. It’s also why the hack of OPM by China was so dangerous — it puts China in position to blackmail people with highly personal information based on the raw investigative data that got hacked.
With all of that as background, exactly which civil liberties were at risk by reading the public Facebook postings and Twitter feed of a clearance applicant? It’s a nonsensical explanation. They already ask witnesses to talk about much more private speech to sense whether an applicant is a danger to the country. If the Secret Service can respond to the insane social media rantings of Donald Trump’s former butler, then clearance investigators can pull up a Facebook page or two from someone who has applied for a clearance.
This seems more like a very belated response to an entirely different security problem — the approval of a visa for Tashfeen Malik despite her public social-media declarations supporting violent jihad, discovered only after she took part in the terrorist attack in San Bernardino late last year. DHS had a deliberate policy of ignoring social-media postings when checking on visa applicants, at least until Malid and Syed Farook massacred 14 people.
So give one cheer to the feds for finally getting around to checking on social media when vetting security clearances. Maybe we can make sure that DHS is following the same policy on visa applicants, yes?