Should Edward Snowden Have Had a Security Clearance?

Everyone knew he advocated online privacy.

Photos of Edward Snowden, a contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), and U.S. President Barack Obama are printed on the front pages of local English and Chinese newspapers in Hong Kong

Photos of Edward Snowden, a contractor at the National Security Agency, and President Obama are printed on the front pages of local English and Chinese newspapers in Hong Kong in this illustration photo from June 11, 2013.

Photo by Bobby Yip/Reuters

Edward Snowden, the Booz Allen Hamilton employee who exposed the NSA’s massive phone and Internet snooping programs, was an outspoken advocate for digital freedom. His laptop displayed stickers supporting the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Tor Project, two groups that work to limit government intrusion into the Internet. Should investigators have discovered that during Snowden’s background check for a security clearance?

Not necessarily. Security clearance investigators don’t specifically seek out an applicant’s policy views, aside from a special interest in communism—a holdover from the Cold War, when the formal security clearance process was born. Political opinions can sometimes come up during interviews, though, especially if they are out of the mainstream. An applicant, for example, may admit to online music piracy in his application. (It’s best to acknowledge such misdeeds, because lying on the application is one of the surest ways to miss out on a security clearance.) The investigator would then ask about piracy in interviews with the candidate’s friends, college roommates, and ex-girlfriends, who might reveal that the applicant believed in an extreme form of Internet freedom.

Security clearance decisions are based on a “whole person” standard, but investigators focus on 13 categories (Allegiance to the United States; Foreign Influence; Foreign Preference; Sexual Behavior; Personal Conduct; Financial Considerations; Alcohol Consumption; Drug Involvement; Psychological Conditions; Criminal Conduct; Handling Protected Information; Outside Activities; and Use of Information Technology Systems). Many of the categories relate to the applicant’s susceptibility to blackmail. If a candidate is deep in debt or has a gambling problem, he may be inclined to sell national secrets. In the past, security clearance investigators tried to identify closeted homosexuals, whom they also viewed as vulnerable to blackmail. In recent years emphasis has shifted away from sexual conduct, mental health conditions, and drug use to the use and abuse of technology. After the Snowden case and the Bradley Manning WikiLeaks scandal of 2010, that emphasis is likely to intensify. Investigators may begin specifically asking about applicants’ views of online privacy and the government’s right to collect electronic data.

Snowden first went through the security clearance process 10 years ago for his work with the CIA. That clearance may still have been active when he began working with Booz Allen Hamilton, or he may have reapplied through the government contractor clearance process. The CIA has its own set of forms that differ from the application used by other departments, and the spy agency has a higher tolerance for misdeeds and independent thinkers, according to observers. The Pentagon, for example, is looking for strait-laced types who obey rules and laws. Certain types of criminal convictions or involvement in shady online activities are less likely to put off the CIA, which views daring and independence as potentially useful traits.

The official denial rate for security clearances is 0.7 percent, but many applicants withdraw their applications after the interview process goes badly. Taking dropouts into account, about 4 percent of security clearance applications fail. Drug use and financial problems triggered the overwhelming majority of denials and revocations. Critics say this is the biggest problem with the security clearance process. Insufficient allegiance to the United States and foreign influence, they argue, are the categories we should be concerned about, yet there is about one denial on grounds of foreign influence for every 22 people denied for drug use. Assessing a person’s patriotism, however, is harder than nailing him for drug use. (This denial of security clearance for a Moroccan-born engineer who owned property and had family in his birth country illustrates just how contentious and complicated such cases can be.) In addition, some of the best-known American leakers, such as Snowden, Manning, and Mark Felt likely considered their actions patriotic. Eliminating leakers would entail excluding conscientious whistle-blowers from government service, which would be a risky move.

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Explainer thanks Laura Donohue of Georgetown Law and Evan Lesser of ClearanceJobs.com.