Sunday, November 30, 2008
Active security clearances are a big plus for job hunters; some of us have legacy baggage out of the past
There doesn’t seem much question that a high-level security clearance, in the DC area at least, is a big plus in job hunting. There are plenty of job fairs (including those mentioned in email lists from Dice) for previously cleared professionals only.
The Jobs Section (K) of the Washington Post today (Nov. 30, 2008), the Jobs Chat section answered a question about the length of time for clearances. A reader asked what it meant if she was asked to do a drug screening six months after applying for the clearance, and the answer was that this is a good thing; it means progress is being made. Some high level clearances take a very long time; for CIA employees, the background investigations often take over one year.
I had a Secret clearance in the Army (1968-1970) and again later at the Naval Command Systems Support Activity (NAVCOSSACT) from 1971-1972. While in the Army and again as a Navy Department employee I was processed for Top Secret clearances with “inconclusive” results. (I also held an informal “confidential” clearance while an RCA employee from 1970-1971). Of course, the explanation has to do with the “psychiatric” episode following my William and Mary “expulsion” in the fall of 1961 (go to my Nov. 28 2006 “main” blog entry).
It used to be that homosexuality was a reason for exclusion from civilian security clearances just as it was (and still is, in a sense – “don’t ask don’t tell” – a basis for exclusion from service in uniform in the military). The circular excuse of “blackmail” was the only “reason” offered. At a security interview at NAVCOSSACT in 1971, I was asked if anyone had ever tried to blackmail me. The answer is “No”. (I never did learn of any attempts by investigators to interview neighbors, friends or coworkers. Today, of course, investigators have reign on the entire Internet as a source of more leads for information.) I finally left government (and civilian employment in a military branch) and entered the private sector.
For security clearances, things gradually started to get better, probably during the Carter administration at first, but according to comments made by Dr. Franklin E. Kameny”, it really only started getting consistently better during the first Bush administration, particularly during the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991). The ACLU and LLDEF used to write tortured legal guides as to how gay people could discreetly go about getting clearances. By the early 1990s, Kameny was telling people (as on the “other” Scott Peck’s Sunday night radio talk show) that, still, getting a clearance was not a “do it yourself” operation. But it had gotten better, much better. In the mid 1990s, President Clinton would issue an Executive Order protecting gay civilians needing clearances further. I recall when contemplating returning to the DC area from Texas in the later 1980s asking a recruiter about clearances, and he did not think it was a problem any more.
Of course, there was an increase in awareness of security in private business over the years. In the late 1980s mainframe shops put in security packages (like Top Secret and RACF) that controlled programmer and user access (especially with update privileges) and, particularly, along with library packages, managed source and load module migration and integrity. Once you worked on a production system, you understood how your whole life could hang by a thread, and you welcomed these systems. (Not everyone did, actually; some people though that programmers should have universal access and should be bonded – bringing back the fears of the old days when sometimes gay people couldn’t be bonded either).
Because of my background, and perhaps the 1961 “accident”, I spent most of my career in the civilian commercial area, that did not require formal clearances. But over the years, concern over security in a practical sense increased, particularly in the 1990s. I recall when at NAVCOSSACT that we had to put everything away and lock it up before going home, and there were security inspection officers (a rotating detail) who would write people up who didn’t. We did not have such concerns over physical hardcopy security in the 1990s, but those concerns have returned, in full measure, since 2000 with all the scandals over the loss of consumer data and identity theft exposures. Security in I.T. is in a different league than it was even when I “retired” at the end of 2001. Now it is a constant concern for everyone. One has to learn work habits that make work “safe.” In some cases, employers have considered a low FICO credit score (which can happen because of misinformation or identity theft) as indication of possible practical security risk for an application. (By the way, I have undergone drug screenings, which can cause false positives, twice: once for the last "career move" in 1990, although the company subsequently dropped the drug screening; and when I applied for a letter carrier job in 2004, which I could not take for other medical reasons.)
One other thing: I’ve always wondered about the ethics of the use of polygraph examinations. The Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988 eliminates the use of the polygraph in most ordinary situations, but it still can be used for high security jobs. If it is so unreliable, why the inconsistency in public policy? Here is a link on the controversy over the EPPA. Other lie detection technologies, even brain scans, could come into play. That’s another big topic for later.
The whole issue of security clearances teaches us a lesson. Even though today the issue that plagued me (clearances for gays) has been largely resolved, the effects are still there. I might have had a different career had this not been a problem before, and since I have never had a high level clearance, in practice opportunities are still reduced relative to those for others, as legacy from discrimination of the past (much as what we argue with “affirmative action”). The problem still consists in the military today. For the country as a whole, intelligence capability is lost. (We know this debate specifically with the military issue and the loss of gay military linguists). And the loss of intelligence means loss in the ability to prevent the next 9/11, or maybe even the loss of ability to prevent the first one.