The opportunities offered by the Snowden case

All of these questions have a direct bearing on the quality and efficiency of the clearance process and each deserves close examination. The rise in security requirements in the post-9/11 environment, coupled with increased sensitivity to protecting privacy and personal data, has created a security regime unlike any we have ever seen. Thus, it is more important than ever to continually review that regime to ensure it has the right balance, the right tools available, and the right focus.  That review must include not just the security community, but other agency stakeholders, as well as external implementing partners, including companies, universities and others, who are also subject to it.  In the end, we need to be confident that we have in place security clearance procedures that ensure the right clearances are being given to the right people after the right kind of vetting. Any holes in the current process impact government and contractor employees alike, since they all go through the same system.

As we go through this important review, it is also important to avoid the temptation to be drawn into extraneous issues.  Almost immediately after the Snowden case came to light, there were those who immediately jumped to the conclusion that Snowden’s status as a contractor employee was somehow relevant to his actions.  In reality, there is no evidence to support such a theory, particularly when one looks at the facts. Only one in 10 people holding some kind of government security clearance is a private sector employee; the rest are government and military personnel. And only one in three high-level clearances are held by contractor personnel. Perhaps even more telling is that, according to Wikipedia, of the roughly three dozen significant, publicly known security breaches of the last several decades, only four have involved contractor personnel and Snowden’s is the first such incident  since 9/11. These facts would certainly seem to disprove the suggestion that the government has somehow become wildly over-reliant on contractors in the intelligence community or that having contractors with clearances somehow increases the risks to national security.

The Snowden case has already resulted in the beginnings of a new debate about the balance of security and privacy.  It has also sparked early discussions about the current security clearance process. These are critically important issues that merit serious, open, multi-lateral discussions.  To the extent any good can come of the case, maintaining our focus on these core issues is essential. What we can’t afford is to allow apparently easy answers to be assumed to be the right answers, especially if they’re solving the wrong problem.

Hillen is a former assistant secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs and has been the president or CEO of several defense technology firms. He is the chairman of the Board of Directors of the Professional Services Council. Soloway is president and CEO of the Professional Services Council and a former deputy undersecretary of Defense.

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