Intelligence chief Mike McConnell wants to change the security clearance process.
Mike McConnell, the new Director of National Intelligence, has a long list of to dos, and not a lot of time to do them. Not yet three months on the job, he has staked out an ambitious management agenda, replete with goals that have befuddled the intelligence bureaucracy for years. In the Bush administration's remaining 20 months, McConnell wants to change information-sharing policies, tweak acquisition to speed up the purchase of new technologies and overhaul the process for vetting employees and granting security clearances. Intelligence observers question whether McConnell should even hope to accomplish so much, but it's that last item-security clearances-that they hope he will tackle with gusto. And judging by his public statements and some long-held beliefs, McConnell likely will oblige.
In April, McConnell released his "100 -Day Plan" for management goals he wants to accomplish quickly. The plan calls for security clearance reform aimed at easing the rigorous process of background checks and vetting that historically has disqualified many first- and second-generation Americans who apply for intelligence jobs. Right now, the intelligence agencies are desperate for more native speakers of Arabic, Chinese, Dari or Farsi and other so-called hard languages. Recent immigrants and their children not only might speak and write these languages fluently, they know the cultures of their ancestral homes, and so can more easily blend in there.
But the clearance process traditionally has eschewed these potential spies because they often have family still living overseas, or have friends and business contacts there. From the intelligence community's standpoint, that makes them vulnerable to blackmail or intimidation. It also opens up the spies to coercion and increases the chance that they might inadvertently-or purposely-let go sensitive secrets to foreign agents. For a long time, foreigners and noncitizens simply have been personae non grata to America's spy service.
"We live today with security rules that literally were established in World War II," McConnell said at his February confirmation hearing. "My view is we're going to have to look at that very hard to reform it."
How will it happen? Agencies will have to lower their threshold for risk. When a security officer goes out to interview an applicant's family members, many experts argue that it can't be an automatic black ball if that applicant's cousin once worked for a foreign intelligence service, or if he has an aunt living in Damascus. At the very least, more questions should be asked.
There's always a fear that "you might let in the wrong person," says Mark Lowenthal, a former assistant director of central intelligence for analysis and production, who was in charge of all language programs for intelligence community analysts. "That's just a risk you're going to have to take."
Immigrant neighborhoods, which intelligence officials refer to as "heritage communities," teem with ideal candidates who not only speak the language but have assimilated to American life. In a 2004 survey of American Muslims by Georgetown University and polling firm Zogby International, more than half of respondents said it "was a good time to be Muslim in America," and two-thirds said the United States should "reduce its support of undemocratic regimes in the Muslim world."
"There's a patriotic talent pool there," says Ronald Sanders, McConnell's chief human capital officer. The DNI's office is trying to capitalize on its relationships with Arab-American communities specifically to attract more recruits, he notes.
Intelligence experts and lawmakers have talked about changing the security clearance rules for years. But former officials who know McConnell are hopeful that he'll finally make progress. The retired admiral fundamentally believes, they say, that the old way of vetting employees is damaging the intelligence community's long-term success and survival. As McConnell moves to enact his reform agenda-with the 20-month clock ticking-he'll aim to make a lasting mark by lowering barriers to entry.
Shane Harris, a staff correspondent for National Journal, wrote about intelligence and technology at Government Executive for five years.