Politics & Policy

Sloppy Security at DOD

Defense secretary Chuck Hagel (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Tax debtors with security clearances are a needless liability.

Individuals who have broken basic laws should probably not be trusted with sensitive government information. That hasn’t stopped the Department of Defense (DOD) from granting security clearances to over 80,000 employees who collectively owed the IRS over $730 million in back taxes, according to a GAO report released Monday.

In June of last year, the Edward Snowden scandal made it clear what one errant or ill-intentioned employee is capable of achieving. Regardless of whether the Snowden leaks have actually damaged any critical government efforts, we can all agree that high-risk government information should remain in safe hands. 

National concern regarding security clearances rose again in September, after Aaron Alexis shot and killed twelve people at the Washington Navy Yard. Alexis, a Navy contractor, had been granted a security clearance in 2009, even though investigators knew that he falsely reported that he had no prior firearms offenses when he enlisted. His clearance had not been reviewed since then, despite concerns about his mental health.

Unauthorized disclosure of sensitive information puts national security at risk, and government agencies should take all possible steps to ensure that security clearances are given only to individuals who pose minimal risk for unauthorized disclosures. Unpaid taxes may not appear to be as big a threat as lying about firearms offenses, but these violations are a serious security concern nonetheless. The GAO points out in its report that tax debt poses “a potential vulnerability.” Specifically, the report explains that “federal regulations state that an individual who is financially overextended is at risk of having to engage in illegal acts to generate funds.”

Given this risk, the DOD should have been especially cautious when granting security clearances to individuals with tax debt. Yet, shockingly, over 20 percent of the employees in question accrued their tax debt prior to receiving security clearances. This shows that the problem is not just one of infrequent reviews. On the contrary, the Department of Defense has seemingly discounted the risks associated with granting security clearances to individuals in that situation.

And we aren’t talking just about baseline security clearances. Over 6,000 of the 80,000 had “top-level” or “sensitive compartmented information” clearances. It is entirely possible that an individual who owes the IRS thousands, or even millions, is even now accessing the government’s most sensitive information.

In an interview with National Review Online, a congressional source points out that “if we want everyday Americans to pay their taxes and follow the law, then we should require the same or more from those we have given top-secret security clearance.” The source continues, “This security risk is something that Congress is looking into and something that definitely needs to be corrected. . . . When you have tax debt like the GAO report highlighted, you are in a situation where you are much more apt to take a bribe to deal with that debt. These employees are a high risk for compromise.”

However, an official with the DOD assures NRO that overdue taxes are considered during the clearance process: “For personnel with back taxes, the adjudication process is the careful weighing of a number of variables known as the whole-person concept. All available, reliable information about the person, past and present, favorable and unfavorable, is considered in reaching a determination.”

But the GAO explains in its report that the screening methods currently utilized by the DOD have “shortcomings in detecting unpaid federal tax debts of clearance applicants.” The report also highlighted the fact that “federal agencies generally did not routinely review federal tax compliance of clearance holders.”

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence is currently working with the DOD on ways to ensure that the tax-debt status of employees is investigated prior to their receiving approval for security clearances, but these discussions have not yet resulted in action. Until these weaknesses in the clearance procedures are rectified, our national security is at risk.

— Caroline Craddock is an Agostinelli Fellow and a research intern at NR.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial posting.

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