Episode 54: Security Clearance

On today's lesson: How do people receive security clearance to see secret, or top secret government material? Who grants it, and how is that clearance revoked in cases of misuse?  Do people with security clearance have unfettered access to secret material, or is classified information compartmentalized? Also, does the President have any restrictions to his security clearance? Today's guest is Juliette Kayyem, national security analyst for CNN and Boston Public Radio, and host of the podcast The Scif

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[Virginia Prescott] What are the different levels of security clearance and what kind of access do they give?

[Juliette Kayyem] OK so there's three levels, at least for the federal government, the top level is of course 'top secret'. That's information that if disclosed would cause exceptionally grave damage, that's the standard. The next is 'secret' which is if disclosed or released would cause serious damage. And then 'confidential' it just tends to be, these are things that the government needs to know for a variety of reasons, and it could be expected to cause damage.

Say, a good example of that would be maybe a memo from someone in the State Department discussing the, you know, the drinking habits of the prime minister of some country. You just don't want...you know, you don't want that out there.

The key difference between the 'top secret' and the other classification levels is that 'top secret' tends to show to the reader—say the president or secretary of defense—what we call sources and methods. How are we getting that information? We have a spy in an ISIS ring in Germany and he's telling us this and so gosh, if that were disclosed or made public...basically, someone, that person would die.

[VP] So who can apply for or be granted these kind of levels of security clearance?

[JK] Well first you have to be asked and generally that is either because of, you know, you get a job...you are asked to serve on some sort of commission or review. That's why sometimes people outside of government have these levels of review. For example, the Department of Defense may ask a team of cyber experts to come in and give them advice on cybersecurity. So that's why outsiders sometimes have security clearances. But most of the time it is, you know, Juliette Kayyem has asked to be an assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. OK we're going to go through the security clearance.

[VP] Again you served as assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs, now this was for the Obama administration so that's through Homeland Security. Which government agency or department grants these? Is it by department?

[JK] The request or the invitation comes by department. But the review is done through the FBI. So in my case and in most cases what you do is you, you know, fill out the famous forms with lots of details about where you've lived, your debt, your marital status, your husband or wife or partners actions, where you've traveled, who you've known, who you've talked to, any questions about drug use about your, you know, support of the United States and its government. It is painful from any from any perspective.

[VP] Well that sounds pretty thorough, are a lot of people rejected for clearance?

[JK] Oh yeah there are rejections I don't know if I know the statistics, I think it's more common that the agents will come back to you and say we have some questions about this. My parents...my mother was born in Lebanon. There, you know, there's greater concern about people with foreign born relatives, especially a mother or father or a spouse. That seems fair since these are national security issues. And so then they did need me to go back and sort of validate or verify not just her but her 9 brothers and sisters. So we are sort of diving into the depths of your own history.

[VP] How long does it take to go through that background check?

[JK] So in my instance it was relatively quick because if they need people on board, say the Obama administration comes in, the Trump administration comes in...let's use someone like Rex Tillerson, a perfect example. Probably someone who may have had security clearances in the past, he's a private citizen, he's got complicated financial dynamics. They can probably get through that one in two to three weeks but they're putting a lot of resources behind it. For a lot of people, like say my students, who may be coming in as a CIA analyst just, you know, looking at things online and doing analysis for the CIA, it can take anywhere from six to eight months.

[VP] So once a person makes it through the background check and I know we're talking about different levels here, what can they do with their new security clearance? I mean is it generally unfettered access across departments or more compartmentalized?

[JK] It's very compartmentalize and rightfully so. So that the fact that you have the access does not grant you the right to see all materials that are designated as say 'top secret'. In other words if I have 'top secret' clearance as relates to say homeland security issues I can't just e-mail, you know, or call someone in the department security offices and say: 'I'm really interested in North Korea's nuclear, you know, nuclear policy. Can I see those top secret materials?'

[VP] So did you ever run across that when you were working that you know somebody would ask you for information and you had to check their security clearance before you could give them information?

[JK] Yeah. So most of the time you will meet in rooms that are designated by the classification. So the meeting will be designated a certain classification level so you actually can't go unless you have that classification level. So you meet...and you don't meet in, you know, the hallway you meet in what's called a SCIF [Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility], that's the name of my podcast, that's a secure compartmentalized information facility. So those are spread throughout the federal government. For example at Homeland Security there are I think a couple dozen SCIFs within the facility including the secretary's office.

And so in that way there are processes that keep the wrong people out well before you're sitting in the room. So it would mean it was bad planning if someone in the room were given top secret information and they didn't have that classification.

[VP] You'd enter that room with a badge? 

[JK] Right. No cellphone, right, with a badge. Someone is monitoring that room, no cell phones. Sometimes you'll hear a communications person or a press person for an agency say: 'I am unaware. I'll need to get back to you.' A lot of times that's because that person probably did not have the classification level to speak about, you know, whatever issue it is. And so I'm actually kind of sympathetic to it that the top secret meetings tend not to include communications people for obvious reasons.

[VP] What indicates clearance? I mean you get fingerprint scanners, iris scanners, badges...how do they do that?

[JK] So no you don't walk around with a badge all the time that says 'TS' for top security clearance. You carry that clearance everywhere you go. And so you will be invited or not invited to various briefings depending on that security level. Most government agencies have what's called security offices--that's people designated to ensure that government employees who get access to certain information are allowed to get access to that information. So that's essentially how it works in terms of functioning of government.

[VP] Well we assume that the president would have access to everything. Are there any restrictions on the president's access?

[JK] No none, I mean, none that I know of. You know maybe there are some super squirrelly world. No if the president wanted any information he could be subject to it. I think people should know though is each principal, whether it's you know lower assistant secretary, higher secretary or a president. Each principal likes their information given to them in certain ways. For me, I really was uninterested in sources and methods given my job. So what's interesting is how do principals actually want to get this information?

So we've heard at least from press reports that President Trump doesn't, you know, obviously does not like a lot of briefings. He's not a detail focused person. He likes images and graphs. And so what will happen is the briefers will amend how they present classified information to the principal depending on their issues.

Great anecdote that I wrote about, about Secretary Napolitano, my boss at the Department of Homeland Security. People forget this but, she wanted her first part of her classified briefing—most of this is not classified—to be weather reports because for her before she got to the classified stuff she wanted her briefings to include unclassified weather reports and so that's what the agents did.

[VP] Under what conditions can a security clearance be revoked?

[JK] A lot. So one is the obvious one which is you abuse the obligations you have for having that security clearance and you either abuse it purposefully, leaks or whatever else or even on accident. So you know there are rules about how we treat classified information for a reason. And I'm incredibly unsympathetic to people who even make mistakes. I mean, you are…you are briefed on this stuff, you don't take stuff home, you don't put stuff in your briefcase.

When you get the briefing to be top secret cleared, the thing that they tell you which I always take to heart because my husband also had top secret clearance at a different part of a federal government, is pillow talk. You cannot casually say: 'Oh we're dealing with this.' You actually have to have, you know, sort of enough devotion to your service to the country to not disclose to a spouse because the worry is if someone says to their spouse you know: 'Oh we're we're doing X, Y, and Z.' Or, 'I'm really nervous about that.' That spouse casually says to someone else and then that person ends up being married to a reporter. So there are reasons that it can get revoked.

The other way it gets revoked is obviously termination whether voluntary or involuntary. So you're seeing this a little bit now, people who are following the Seb Gorka drama, he was a national security adviser to the President. Unclear whether he was fired or left. But one of the things that has come out is they immediately sort of revoked his security clearances and even his access to his office. That seems appropriate to me.

When I left voluntarily, you gotta sign a whole bunch of stuff giving up your security clearance, hand in anything that you might have in your office that's designated as secure and be escorted off the facilities.

[VP] Juliette, do you think the system works for keeping sensitive material under control?

[JK] I do. I do. I mean I think you hear a lot about it now because there's a certain casualness about classified information or top secret information that you saw in the early days of the Trump administration. He's getting briefed at Mar a Lago or they're having meetings that aren't exactly SCIFs. You know it's not so much you worry that the people in the room are talking to reporters is that those are...you know, unless you have a secure room, whatever is being discussed including top secret information could be eavesdropped on by foreign agencies.

I think something that we need to tighten up is a contractor issue. Remember, a lot of government work, especially in national security intelligence, is done by contractors because you just really need a lot of bodies and it's sometimes easier to get them outside. Those people do go through security clearance reviews, but you know if you look at Edward Snowden and some cases since that seems to be where there is a loophole.

[VP] You mentioned President Trump's administration and some problems with security clearance including his son in law Jared Kushner under scrutiny over possible ties to Russia. There have been calls by the Senate Judiciary Committee, and I should mention this is a bipartisan committee, to revoke his security clearances. What do you think?

[JK] I think it won't be done and I think it absolutely should be done. So and the reason why is Jared Kushner presently at least from what we can tell, is being questioned regarding his ties, and omissions of disclosure about his ties, and financial ties to Russia. Any other human being who did what he did—and just to remind your listeners he failed to disclose a lot of these meetings in his first round of disclosures through the classified screening process. He's updated it several times since. Any normal person, like you and me, who was going through this process who did that it's like...you're like, so not going to get your security clearance or it's going to be revoked.

In other words if I got security clearance and then it was later learned that I had recent—that's what I have to remind people, these were recent meetings between myself and Russia—my security clearance would be revoked. I might be more sympathetic to Jared Kushner if the things he forgot were like oh he was you know partying in Rio de Janeiro in 1995 and met with the prime minister whoever you know whoever was there. I could understand that. It's hard to remember things from years back, but the things he failed to disclose were literally two months before. You know, we tend to forget things twenty years before not two months before. So in any rational world, Jared Kushner would not have security clearance.


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