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State Dept. Security Holds Diplomats in Limbo

photo: In October, State Department’s internal magazine ran a favorable piece on the agency’s new security clearance process which many foreign service officers are questioning.

In the pinstriped world of the State Department, it’s rare for the glory to transit beyond the usual cast of White House appointees and longtime diplomats. But this month, an obscure bureaucratic entity, the Office of Personnel Security and Suitability (PSS), got its due. The department’s internal magazine, State, lauded PSS for overhauling the ways it handles officials’ security clearances—critical for a diplomat to do his or her job. The once-cumbersome process is now “one of the fastest and most efficient within the federal government,” State beamed. PSS’s chief Don Reid even got a gold star from the White House – a Meritorious Senior Professionals and Executives Presidential Rank Award, the equivalent of a lifetime recognition prize—in October.

But while Foggy Bottom congratulates PSS and Reid, a former Air Force officer, many Foreign Service officers tell a different story. To them, Reid has perverted the security-clearance process, not improved it. Under previous administrators, it took a lot to get a security clearance suspended: if there was a question about a diplomat’s loyalty or conscientiousness, agents would go after his or her clearance, a career-ending move. These days, though, minor disciplinary infractions—a domestic dispute, or allegedly disobeying a verbal directive—have led to immediate clearance suspension, forcing diplomats to pack their bags for Washington. Critics say PSS considers suspending clearances to be a mark of success in and of itself, regardless of whether its investigations actually protect national security.

Firing a diplomat who contests a suspension is against the department’s rules, so many under investigation have simply been assigned busywork while the appeals process drags on. What’s more, these officials say, PSS exercises little oversight over how its agents carry out their responsibilities, allowing diligence to morph into vendettas. The effect has been to turn experienced diplomats – at least 70—into schedulers and motor-pool technicians at a time when the department is desperate to fill overseas positions, owing to increasing demands for Foreign Service officers in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Daniel Hirsch is a 48-year old veteran management officer. When the Iron Curtain collapsed, Hirsch traveled to the heart of the old Soviet Empire to open new U.S. embassies in Bishkek and Tashkent. Unlike many of his colleagues, Hirsch says he wants the most dangerous posting of all – Baghdad – to help an expanding embassy get off the ground. Only he can’t. PSS investigators in 2003 looked into a report that Hirsch slapped his wife, which he admits is true. From there, they discovered a decades-old photograph of Hirsch during a trip to Israel, dressed like an Israeli soldier. They stripped his clearance on suspicion —which, five years later, has yet to be proven—that Hirsch is an Israeli agent, something he vehemently denies. Now, without a clearance, he’s stuck pushing papers in Human Resources. “When your clearance is suspended, you can’t bid on ordinary jobs,” Hirsch lamented. “If you believe State does something useful, then it doesn’t make sense.”

Nor is he alone. Les Hickman, a consular officer who speaks Arabic, had his clearance stripped in 2003 after being suspected of involvement in an visa-fraud scandal when he was stationed in the U.S. embassy in Amman. An investigation found that a Jordanian working in the embassy had accepted bribes to expedite visa claims. An official with State’s Diplomatic Security bureau, which oversees PSS, told Hickman’s lawyer that PSS had cleared Hickman of the visa-fraud charge in 2004. But almost four years later, his clearance is still suspended. Now he’s an event planner in the Human Resources, arranging the retirees’ annual reunion gala.

Bill Savich, a 49-year old embassy security officer, lost his clearance in another bureaucratic quagmire. In 2002, he was accused of an inappropriate relationship with a Russian employee of the U.S. consulate in Vladivostok. Despite following reporting requirements to the letter – he insists the relationship was purely platonic – Savich, a 20-year veteran, now hands out parking passes in the State Department motor pool.

None of the three has ever been charged with a crime, which would have happened if the State Department possessed credible evidence that they posed a risk to national security. More to the point: all are still State employees, owing to departmental rules that prevent an employee from being fired while he or she contests a clearance suspension, which all of them are doing. All three had time on a recent January afternoon for a very long lunch at an Indian restaurant in Foggy Bottom.

It used to be that the standard for security clearance suspension or revocation was evidence of an employee’s danger to national security. The Foreign Affairs Manual, which serves as the department’s official list of rules and regulations, predicates the entire security-clearance process on ensuring “that the department employ and retain in its service only those persons whose employment or retention is found to be clearly consistent with the interests of the national security.” Its specific guidance for the revocation or suspension of a clearance depends on determining that an employee’s clearance status “is not clearly consistent with national security interests.”

Over the last three years, however, the standards have shifted. PSS still seeks to protect national security. But it’s also gone further. Disciplinary matters are now cause for clearance suspension. The standard “used to be ‘is this person trustworthy or loyal, or not,” said Hirsch. “Now it’s a disciplinary standard – ‘did this person do something improper’?”

Savich is a case in point. The reason that PSS yanked his clearance wasn’t that the Russian consulate employee was a security risk. It was because he was said to have violated an oral directive to cease contact with her – a directive Savich insists he never received, and which he says a Human Resources investigation found no evidence was ever issued. “Never in five years, never, have they provided me with specific security concerns about myself or the relationship,” Savich said. A State Department spokesman said the department will not comment on specific employees’ cases.

The clearance changes have tracked with those in the office’s leadership. In 2002, Secretary Colin L. Powell brought in two military officials to run the bureau of Diplomatic Security. Frank Taylor, the DS chief, and Don Reid, his deputy in charge of PSS, were both Air Force investigative officers, who, according to Savich, brought in “a military view of the world,” alien to the State Department culture. Following the lead of their bosses – and, most likely, the post-9/11 atmosphere of zero tolerance for security concerns – PSS investigators took an overzealous approach to their jobs.

Suspending clearances, and not successful national-security investigations, became PSS’ measure of its success, critics say, outraging many who came into contact with investigators. In August 2005, an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel wrote to Taylor’s successor, the since-resigned Richard Griffin, that a PSS investigator interviewed him about a suspect diplomat. “He asked leading, subjective questions, and started to distort my own words to match his preconceptions,” the officer wrote. “[I]f my experience is commonplace, there may be a cancer growing in the Diplomatic Security Service.”

Similarly, investigators began to go on fishing expeditions to obscure flimsy evidence against employees whose clearances they suspended. In July 2004, Hickman’s lawyer received an email from an official in Diplomatic Security’s Visa Fraud investigations division. “We (Visa Fraud) closed out our angle on the investigation and were unable to substantiate any of the visa fraud allegations,” the DS official wrote. By then, however, Hickman was also facing another charge: he had an improper sexual relationship with a woman in his office (not that the relationship, which Hickman flatly denies, threatened national security).

In response to the uptick in clearance suspensions – and to his own personal employment purgatory – Hirsch and colleagues requested in 2006 that the department’s inspector general look into PSS. The IG’s subsequent report, released in September 2006, found investigators “appeared free of bias or prejudice” and administers the revocation process “equitably.” Hirsch considers it a whitewash. “It didn’t involve any witnesses [to the actual cases] and it only looked at closed cases,” he says, suggesting that ongoing cases – like those of himself or Savich or Hickman – might be more illustrative. It’s worth noting that Howard “Cookie” Krongard was the IG when the IG’s office looked at PSS. Krongard resigned in December after the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee found evidence that Krongard scuttled delicate investigations.

The State Department did not make Reid available for an interview. Nor did it respond to repeated and detailed questions about changes to PSS or the security-clearance process. If State responds after the publication of this story, check our staff blog for updates.

State’s revisions of its security clearance process have come at an inopportune moment. In late October, the department was so short-staffed at its Baghdad embassy that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice threatened to forcibly reassign personnel to Iraq, prompting a bitter town-hall meeting of outraged Foreign Service officers at Foggy Bottom. The reassignment never happened. But to combat the diplomatic deficit in Iraq and Afghanistan, the director of the Foreign Service, Harry Thomas, announced last month that embassies worldwide will trim personnel by 10 percent, citing “severe staffing shortfalls.” Now, in other words, may not be the best time to yank the clearances of experienced diplomats who don’t pose national-security risks. Inside the State Department, the security clearance process is well understood to have exacerbated the staffing crunch. This month, the American Foreign Service Association released a poll finding “excessive penalties for security infractions/investigations” made the diplomats’ list of top-ten grievances.

For their part, Hirsch, Hickman and Savich have banded together to resist what they consider the basic unfairness of the clearance-suspension process. In 2005, they, with another colleague, formed an organization called Concerned Foreign Service Officers, representing about 70 diplomats and civil-service officials currently in bureaucratic limbo. The group publicizes cases of questionable clearance-suspension, works with members of Congress to raise awareness about PSS, and even maintains a diplo-horror-story blog, Dead Men Working.

But whatever impact the group has on PSS, none of the three believes he can help himself. “There’s not much hope to make this right,” Hickman said, walking along Pennsylvania Avenue back to his human-resources drudgery. Perhaps the best they can hope for is a laudatory article in State magazine about how great the motor pool is these days.

Update: This piece has been corrected. An earlier version incorrectly identified Frank Taylor as Frank Thomas. We regret the error.

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