Since putting up our web site, we have received a number of questions. Here are the most frequently asked questions and our answers to them.
Who are you?
Concerned Foreign Service Officers was founded by a group of Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) who united in mutual support after their security clearances were indefinitely suspended by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) based on minor and unsubstantiated allegations. The group has grown substantially since its founding and now includes many Foreign Service and Civil Service employees of the State Department who have never had any clearance problems in their careers, but who share the group's concerns over the problems that the group has identified in the security clearance process. Some members have experienced similar problems in the past, many others know colleagues who have experienced the problems we have identified, and many are simply concerned that a vital process is not functioning properly. Membership in Concerned Foreign Service Officers was expanded in 2007 to include Civil Service employees, and is open to any current or former Foreign Service or Civil Service employee of the U.S. Department of State who is concerned about improving the security clearance process.
What do you do?
We review security clearance cases to identify improprieties. We compare security clearance cases to identify trends and patterns. We interview Foreign Service Officers and others who have experienced improper treatment during investigations. We maintain a data bank of cases, including DS accusations and employee responses. We serve as a resource to employees of State and other agencies who are victims of such improper actions and to their attorneys. We provide information to AFSA, to NGOs and to members of Congress who are concerned about ensuring the integrity of the security clearance process and the efficiency of Government. We work with Congress to try to strengthen legal protections for Foreign Service employees. And we try to educate and inform the Foreign Service community about an issue that most employees are not aware of, but which should concern them.
What are the issues?
The cases of primary interest to us are cases where DS has decided to suspend or revoke clearances of employees who have already been cleared, and may have held a security clearance for years or decades. There are many cases where, in response to allegations of many types, including allegations of whistle blowing, expression of dissenting viewpoints, or minor acts of possible misfeasance unrelated to national security, DS suspends clearances in order to conduct long term investigations, almost always culminating in a recommendation to revoke the clearance. There is a lot of evidence that the process is being abused as a "special" personnel tool, to enable the agency to circumvent prohibited personnel practices. We have also noted many improprieties in other areas of the process. Timeliness has gotten a lot of press. Most cases take well over three years to resolve and some investigations have been pending for over six years without even reaching the adjudication stage. But timeliness is only one issue. Other issues include improper acts during investigations, false or misleading statements in reports of investigation, failure to apply the required whole person concept to adjudication, failure to vet allegations against information already in hand before initiating an investigation or referring cases to other agencies, misuse of security classification to hide DS misfeasance, failure to abide by the Department's own regulations and misuse of compartmentalization.
Can anyone join you?
Membership in Concerned Foreign Service Officers is open to any current or former Foreign Service or Civil Service employee of the U.S. Department of State or other Foreign Affaires agency. We need members whose security clearances have never been questioned.
I have never had a problem with DS. Why should I care?
Because the issues of concern may directly affect you at any time. As AFSA and GAO have documented, DS is holding employees retroactively responsible for compliance with standards that have not been published, despite repeated requests by AFSA and others that DS do so. Any action that brings you to the attention of DS for any reason (change in medical clearance status, for example) can trigger a DS investigation of your past and present actions over the course of - and even prior to - your Foreign Service career. These will be judged for compliance with unpublished security requirements of which nearly all employees are unaware.
Because you are concerned about waste, fraud and mismanagement in any Department of State process. The security clearance suspension and revocation process as it is being carried out by DS is flawed and can be subverted to circumvent employee rights and merit promotion principles. Despite legal requirements for evidence, the administrative process as practiced by DS places no burden of proof on the Department, and clearances are often indefinitely suspended based solely on the existence of "doubt" - often nothing more than the curiosity or animosity of a single DS agent. In many cases, unsupported security clearance adjudications are being allowed to trump the professional suitability judgments of HR and MED professionals, who are held to stricter standards of evidence by law and regulation. DS's assertion that evidence is not required to establish doubt is very different from the practice of DOD, OPM and other agencies, where "doubt" is defined according to a strict legal definition. In DOHA and other case law, doubt is defined as legal a concept that requires real evidence to substantiate it, and is defined as "assertions, supported by evidence, which are not satisfactorily refuted when the employee has been given a fair opportunity to provide evidence in his or her defense."
Because you want a Foreign Service that is able to do its job. Lengthy fishing expeditions waste money and staff time, remove experienced employees from posts and jobs, and sideline several dozen employees per year for an indefinite period of time. This reduces the efficiency of the Foreign Service, wastes the taxpayer's money, reduces the efficiency of the service, directly affects ongoing operations and programs and diminishes the value of the work that all employees perform.
Because DS is in the process now of institutionalizing procedures which violate regulations and circumvent laws affecting you and your rights. For example, DS is currently usurping the "suitability" function accorded by law and regulation to the Office of Human Resources. Whereas under regulation, DS decides suitability (based on security factors) for a clearance and HR decides suitability (based on skills and lifestyle issues) for employment, DS is now deciding suitability for employment as well. This takes the "lifestyle" issues out of HR where they are adjudicated in a transparent manner and where employee rights are protected by civil rights and other laws, and puts them in DS where these matters are adjudicated secretly and are unaffected by personnel protections. Employees are currently having clearances revoked not because they are security risks, nor because they pose any danger, nor because their skills and behavior have been found "unsuitable" by HR, but rather because DS has made an opaque decision to terminate their clearance on "suitability" grounds.
Why are you testifying about whistleblower cases? Are you whistleblowers?
Some of our members are whistleblowers. Many are not. However, the issues are related by the fact that abuse of the security clearance process is the primary tool used by Government agencies to silence or attack whistleblowers, for the same reasons that we are concerned about in every case. The process is poorly regulated, not subject to the constraints placed on personnel processes, opaque, and frequently abused. Not surprisingly, the same NGOs and members of Congress that are concerned about whistleblowers are also concerned about abuses of the security clearance process in general. We are hopeful that legislation limiting the way that the process can be abused to punish whistleblowers will also restrict other abuses as well.
Surely the State Department has a right to fire bad employees!
Of course it does. And legitimate mechanisms exist to enable it to do so. Employees who receive unsatisfactory performance evaluations can be separated by the Performance Standards Board. Employees who do bad things can be fired through the HR disciplinary process. Some employees are denied tenure because of chronic medical issues. What we object to is the abuse of the Security Clearance process to attack employees who have performed their duties well, and who have done nothing that merits firing through the disciplinary process. The fact of the matter is that most of the employees currently facing long term suspension or revocation of their clearances are excellent employees, as measured by the two mechanisms used to determine excellence in the Foreign Service. The average rank of the group is FS-01 (roughly GS-15), meaning that most have been promoted through the ranks to the highest levels of the service. Most have received a number of awards, and many have large numbers of significant awards. Six of the employees who have had their clearances suspended or revoked during the past four years have received Department-wide (Employee of the Year) awards during their careers for excellence in their areas of specialization. One received the Secretary of State's Award for Public Outreach after the initiation of his current 5 year long clearance suspension. At least two have received the Secretary of State's award for Heroism (one received two such awards). In none of the cases of concern to us was the allegation against the employee related either to performance or to any failure to protect national security. In several cases, the suspension of the clearance occurred after HR specifically ruled that the allegation did not merit a disciplinary action.
Do these issues affect only the Foreign Service?
No. The issues of concern affect all U.S. Government employees whose security clearances are issued or adjudicated by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security of the State Department. We have become aware of many cases involving Civil Service employees that are similar to those involving Foreign Service employees.
How can I help?
You can share this information and website with others.
If you are aware of any cases involving the sort of abuse we have written about, you can contact us to share what you know. The more information we have, the better we can identify and prove the patterns and trends we are finding.
You can join our group. Membership is free and open to any Foreign Service or Civil Service employee of the U.S. Department of State or other Foreign Affairs agency and can be confidential if you prefer. The more members we have, the greater our credibility to our interlocutors. Whether or not you are eligible for membership, you can express your concern to your senator or congressman, or to any member of the House Committee on Government Reform.
You can contribute, either with a donation, or by buying a tee shirt, or by accessing Amazon through the links on our site.
Doesn't AFSA do this?
AFSA attorneys are constrained by attorney-client privileges, by agreements with the State Department, and other factors. Concerned Foreign Service Officers is the first group to be able to compare so many cases to the degree that we have been able to compare them, and to identify and quantify many of the issues involved.
DS has said and written that the issues you raise concern only 40 out of 20,000 clearance cases per year. What are the numbers?
We are concerned about what happens when an allegation is made against a career employee. The vast majority of the 20,000 clearance cases adjudicated annually by DS are initial clearances have nothing whatsoever to do with the processes we are concerned about. Most are one-time, limited-term clearances for contract personnel, summer interns and others, nearly all of which are performed by specialized outside contractors. Only about 200 allegations a year (of any type) are made against Foreign Service employees. Of these, roughly 70 per year will be treated as "adverse action" cases, involving one or more of the problems we are concerned about. So when an allegation of any type is made against a Foreign Service Officer, there is about a 40% chance that the FSO will experience one or more of the problems of concern to us -- two out of every five, not forty out of twenty thousand.
DS claims that most delays are due to referrals to other agencies. What is the truth?
Referral to other agencies typically adds nine months to a year to the processing time for these cases. Almost all cases are referred to the FBI, and some to other agencies as well. There are several issues of concern. First, no vetting occurs before a case is referred to another agency. If the allegation concerns a possible crime or espionage, for example, it will be referred to the FBI regardless of the evidence or lack thereof, regardless of the reasonableness of the allegation, and with complete disregard for any exculpatory facts already on hand. The assumption is always made that even if DS has uncovered no evidence of wrongdoing, the FBI or another agency might be able to dig something up. That approach never works. In every case that has come to our attention, the FBI has returned a finding of "no further interest." Several FBI agents have further confirmed to us that such unsubstantiated, long-shot allegations are a low priority for the FBI, to be investigated only as time allows. So the more speculative and unlikely the referral, the longer it is likely to take. Second, DS has no mechanism for monitoring when cases are returned from outside agencies. Cases are returned to DS with a finding that the FBI (or other agency) has not substantiated the allegation and has no further interest, but in many cases, months later, DS continues to insist that the case is "still out" with that other agency. In several cases, the agency involved has written letters to DS, with copies to the subject and to the subject's attorney, stating that the agency has no further interest in the case. Demonstrably, months after those letters were received by DS, DS has insisted to HR and others that the cases continued to be delayed by referral. Third, there is no follow up from HR. The HR bureau is supposed to monitor progress of these cases. However, even when it is shown to HR that cases have been returned from the agency to which they once were referred, HR does not contest DS's assertion that the cases are delayed by that referral.
DS claims to follow Government wide standards. What is the truth?
DS is obfuscating the truth by confusing government-wide standards with government-wide procedures. The standards are a guideline that applies to the entire government, including DS. However, whereas DoD and OPM follow certain standardized procedures for investigations and for the application of the government-wide standards, DS does not follow those government wide procedures. Specifically, DoD and OPM base security clearance adjudications only on personnel security background investigations (see our aides memoire page for more on this) and DS frequently and improperly bases adjudications on criminal investigations, a much more narrowly focused type of investigation which yields distorted results. Unlike DoD and OPM, DS also lacks any written guidelines for the interpretation of the government-wide standards, and fails to provide the due process, oversight and internal controls provided by other agencies. One result of the distortion created by DS's failure to follow government-wide procedures is that there are a number of cases known to us of FSOs whose clearances were suspended or even revoked by DS, who continue to maintain the highest possible clearances from the US military. Several are in the reserves, one currently serves in intelligence, another is a special forces officer currently serving on the front lines in Iraq. At least one was promoted by the military since DS revoked his clearance.
OIG says that they looked into your claims and found no evidence to support them. What do you say to that?
It is estimated that between 1882, when the first reliable record of a Southern lynching was written, and 1968, when the so-called Jim Crow system was (officially) eliminated, more than 3440 black men, women and children were lynched in the American South. Yet there is almost no known case in which the official records of the authorities in charge reflect the event as a crime of racial hatred against an innocent victim. The official records will almost always show that the lynching victim was guilty of a crime (more than 2/3 of lynched men had been accused of rape) and will usually reflect that the victim had either committed suicide, or been accidentally killed while resisting arrest, or perhaps had simply died of natural causes. In the few cases where the record will reflect the lynching as a crime, the police will have done their duty. The record will show that evidence was collected, witnesses were interviewed, crime scenes were investigated, but unfortunately there was insufficient evidence to convict with certainty any individual or individuals who may have been involved. Similarly, after the passage of the fifteenth amendment to the US Constitution in 1870, no African American was ever denied the right to vote based on his race. Although for the next hundred years many African Americans were routinely prevented from voting, none were ever officially turned away from a polling place simply for being Black. The records will reflect, in accordance with local regulations, that the prospective voter did not own sufficient land in the electoral district, had not payed the proper taxes, had insufficient knowledge on which to vote responsibly, or perhaps was an individual of known ill-repute. Or maybe (being inexplicably intimidated by large numbers of thugs and dogs lounging near the polling-house door) he or she had simply chosen not to show up. Wherever oversight is lacking, official records of official actions almost always reflect that the actions were conducted in accordance with a relevant law or regulation. That is why journalists, historians, civil rights attorneys and others who investigate such events go beyond such records, to interview those who were there, to review private journals, read articles from independent newspapers, and occasionally even disinter bodies to discover whether the "heart attack" actually left rope marks. That is what we asked OIG to do. To talk to the witnesses. Review open cases. Review raw data. All of which we told OIG where to find. Instead, OIG performed a review solely of the official record, and limited itself to closed cases, all of which had been fully vetted, tweaked and edited by several layers of DS officials prior to the OIG review. We told OIG before they began their investigation what to look for and how to look for it. We also told them where not to look. We told them that if they only looked in DS/PSS case files, they would not find any evidence of our claims. So what did they do? They only looked in DS/PSS case files, where we told them they would find nothing. They did not look any further. They did not interview witnesses whose names, addresses and phone numbers we provided to them. And they did not review raw data in open cases as we asked them to do. As a token gesture, they say that they looked for written evidence of bias or discrimination, as if one could expect a DS agent to write "let's get this kike" or some similar note into a final report. And (will wonders never cease?) they found that an official reason had been provided to justify every revocation. The OIG team wanted to find nothing and they found it. And we, in turn, responded to their obvious whitewash with a formal complaint to the Integrity Committee (IC) of the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency, headed by the Justice Department. A longer statement answering this FAQ can be found on our aide-memoires page.
I can't believe that fraud and improper investigative techniques are really sanctioned by DS management!?
Let's put it this way: If a Foreign Service Officer is even alleged to have committed an improper act, his clearance is pulled and every effort is made by DS/PSS to remove him from the Foreign Service by any means possible. On the other hand, when DS Special Agents are accused of evidence tampering, witness tampering or fraudulent statements in reports of investigation, these complaints are never investigated (as confirmed by State's OIG staff). The agent who was the subject of the complaint described in a November 2005 letter to the Foreign Service Journal was promoted two months after the complaint was made to Assistant Secretary Richard J. Griffin, despite the fact that DS has veto power over any promotion. He is now an office director in DS headquarters. Another agent indicted for felony conspiracy, obstruction of justice and false declarations (see "DS in the News" in our links section) was rewarded with a prime overseas posting. Senior DS management helped him raise funds and provided testimony in his defense. Another agent accused in an OIG complaint of witness tampering in two separate cases was assigned to a high profile embassy. And in at least one other case, a Special Agent accused of wrongdoing was placed in charge of investigating his accuser. In apparent response to a large number of complaints by AFSA and others over numerous improprieties in the work performed by DS/PSS, the head of DS/PSS was named DS's Employee of the Year. Meanwhile, an average of four employees per month lose their clearances over unsubstantiated allegations of acts which are neither criminal nor disloyal, but simply provide DS with an opportunity to meet their quota.
Why doesn't State Department management intervene?
One reason is that management likes having a back-door method of firing employees. Any agency would find it convenient, once in a while, to be able to use this mechanism, and to some degree, the security clearance process has always been abused for this purpose. What has happened within the past four years is that what was once a mechanism used only in extremely rare and exceptional circumstances has now become virtually a standard practice. Calling attention to current abuses might call attention to past abuses as well, and fixing the problem would prevent future abuses which some in the Department's leadership might wish to retain as options.
Another reason is the systemic tendency of the Department to avoid admitting its mistakes. Traditionally, Department leadership has always failed to recognize illegalities or errors in procedure until it was forced to do so by court rulings or legislation. In this case, there is the additional factor of opacity, which makes it hard to prove culpability for some of the issues involved, and the ease of denial intrinsic in a process most FSOs and the vast majority of Americans understand very little about. The Department has refused to discuss the issues, citing "national security" and a policy of not discussing individual cases. It does not discuss cases with the subject of the investigation, ostensibly because doing so would compromise the investigation or its findings. It does not discuss cases with other parties, ostensibly to protect the employee's privacy. And the Department can always get away with silence by simply claiming that it is protecting some secret and hidden aspect of national security. So it is easy for the Department to avoid dealing with the issue. When illegalities in a given case are demonstrated, the Department asserts that it does not intervene in individual cases. When AFSA or CFSO point out patterns and systemic issues, - for example a pattern shown across a broad range of cases - the Department refuses to examine the examples, which they claim to regard as a collection of individual cases. By this means, the Department has avoided, for example, addressing an AFSA letter that has been awaiting a response for many months.
Do you have any other evidence of this?
Yes, we do. We work by comparing cases, by identifying improper actions and statements and by quantifying patterns. We share this information with our members, with OIG, and to some degree with the media. We are weighing the value of putting some examples online, but there are legal and other issues we must consider. We are considering those issues. In the meantime, if evidence would help you, join us or contact us directly.
Doesn't DS have a mandate to investigate allegations and act to protect the Government and the nation?
Of course it does. To the degree that it does so fairly and honestly, Concerned Foreign Service Officers fully supports DS in its efforts. If a Foreign Service Officer commits a crime or betrays the public trust, we fully support his or her removal from the Service and prosecution in a judicial setting. But we also believe that DS should act in compliance with laws and regulations, just as Foreign Service Officers must. When DS is allowed to misrepresent facts and regulations, conduct itself improperly during investigations, seize personal property without a warrant, or otherwise lie, cheat and steal in the course of "proving" a Foreign Service employee "guilty" in a non-judicial process, something is broken and needs to be fixed. Moreover, DS's job is to protect the Department and the country from security risks, and not to make personnel decisions that circumvent employee rights under Federal personnel laws.