ADVICE+DISSENT: Intelligence File Clearing Barriers

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.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.