Government's Response To Snowden? Strip 100,000 Potential Whistleblowers Of Their Security Clearances

from the surface-issues-neutralized.-underlying-causes-unaddressed. dept

Snowden just re-upped for three years in picturesque Russia, a land best known for not being a US military prison. Not exactly ideal, but under the circumstances, not entirely terrible. The government knows where Snowden is (more or less) and many officials have a pretty good idea what they’d like to do to him if he returns, but the NSA is still largely operating on speculation when it comes to what documents Snowden took.

But they do have someone looking into this. The government has tried to assess the damage posed by Snowden’s leaks, but so far all it has come up with is vague proclamations that the released have caused grave and exceptional damage to US security and an even vaguer CIA report claiming that a bunch of documents Snowden theoretically has in his possession might severely harm the US if a) they are released and b) they exist.

Charlie Clark at Defense One has a fascinating article on the man tasked with handling the intelligence community’s post-Snowden world.

The man filling that role, or the “NCIX,” as acronym-inclined national security feds call the National Counterintelligence Executive, is Bill Evanina, 47, a former FBI special agent with a counter-terrorism specialty.

Tapped in May 2014 by James Clapper, director of the Office of National Intelligence, Evanina is now immersed in coordinating multi-agency efforts to mitigate the risk of foreign infiltration, assess damage from intelligence leaks and tighten the security clearance process.

This means teaming up with the “‘most transparent administration” to help sniff out and stamp out so-called “insider threats.” This has always been a priority during Obama’s term and its efforts are now being redoubled. On one hand, the ODNI (James Clapper’s office) is dipping its toes in the transparency waters. (But mainly it’s trying to keep from being pushed into the transparency pool by a variety of litigants.) Evanina is working towards the “discussion” of security vs. privacy, but most of his efforts are focused on locking everything down.

The appearance of new leakers has the government even more concerned.

[W]hen queried about an Aug. 6 New York Times report of leaked internal documents showing “secret terror lists” that include 28,000 Americans kept by the National Counterterrorism Center, Evanina was firmer. “No unauthorized leak is routine,” he said. “It’s a criminal act that has us very concerned. In the intelligence community’s view, every disclosure is a problem because it betrays the people who collected that data. There’s a rationale on why it was classified,” he added, citing a need to protect “both the collection methods and lives.” The FBI is moving forward,” he said, with a probe into how the lists were leaked to an online magazine called The Intercept.

The government swears it protects whistleblowers but the efforts it makes undermines its assertions. Telling people the government is targeting them for reasons it doesn’t seem to be able to put into words is called a “criminal act.” But here’s the most surprising fact from Evanina’s profile.

One crisp action taken following agency auditing after Snowden’s exposure: 100,000 fewer people have security clearances than did a year ago, Evanina said. “That’s a lot.”

This looks like the proper response to someone like Snowden. Handing out too many security clearances undermines security. But it’s more than that: it’s a consolidation of power. By stripping 100,000 people of their clearances, the government eliminates 100,000 potential whistleblowers. With fewer eyes watching surveillance programs, odds of abuse multiply. Someone has to watch the watchers and sometimes that someone is nothing more than a government contractor.

This response doesn’t fix the underlying problems — the government’s broad surveillance programs that sweep up Americans’ data and communications. All it does is make it that much harder to expose wrongdoing.

If the government wants to solve its problems, it needs to listen to its whistleblowers rather than simply writing them off as security risks or criminals. The internal channels are a joke and no serious effort is being made to improve them. Instead, the NSA and others have reined in access, ensuring that whistleblowers are both fewer in number and limited in options.

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Comments on “Government's Response To Snowden? Strip 100,000 Potential Whistleblowers Of Their Security Clearances”

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Anonymous Coward says:

‘By stripping 100,000 people of their clearances, the government eliminates 100,000 potential whistleblowers. ‘

more than that it means there are other files that these 100,000 people were in charge of/looking at that are so sensitive that the government dont want the public and perhaps the world to know they exist!!

harbingerofdoom (profile) says:

Re: Re:

the concerning issue is not how many have access to these documents, the possibility of them being leaked or even who specifically should or should not have access to them.

the really concerning part is:
why is the US engaging in activities so abhorrent that the mere leaking of these activities would cause such detrimental harm to the US?
I think we really should be focusing on that and then we can worry about who has access to what and if they even should.

Xploding_Cobra (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

It isn’t so much that they might be doing something abhorrent as it may be a case of getting rid of the people that have no NEED for a security clearance. For all we know, and the article doesn’t really say, it could be people in Military Research. For that matter, we ended up getting about a hundred peoples clearance pulled in my Battalion alone when I was in Germany – they simply had no need to have the clearance that they had in the first place. The previous Command had been using clearances as incentives for basically sucking up to the Command.

Not everything is cloak and dagger BS, sometimes it’s simply something that should have been done a long time ago.

tomczerniawski (profile) says:

“No unauthorized leak is routine,” he said. “It’s a criminal act that has us very concerned. In the intelligence community’s view, every disclosure is a problem because it betrays the people who collected that data. There’s a rationale on why it was classified,” he added, citing a need to protect “both the collection methods and lives.”

… what if the leak is, in itself, reporting a criminal act by the government? Is that still a crime? 🙂

Anonymous Coward says:

watch for watermarks, leakers

If I was trying to catch leakers, I would be looking into auto generating unique watermarks (some more obvious than others) every time a different user fetched a secret document. (e.g. tweaking pixels, fonts, colors, whitespace, random grammatical tweaks that don’t change the meaning of a document).

I think it’d be pretty hard to be a truly anonymous leaker if the government was serious about tracking its records. The only real safety is in serious whistle-blower reforms like changing the flaws in the Espionage Act.

Actually, beyond legislation, what would really be helpful is a serious culture change, where whistle-blowers are internally praised instead of persecuted.

Violynne (profile) says:

Re: watch for watermarks, leakers

“If I was trying to catch leakers, I would be looking into auto generating unique watermarks (some more obvious than others) every time a different user fetched a secret document.”
This implies those who are grabbing the documents don’t know this. They do, which is why many will rescan the original documents before releasing them.

While my comment received the top Funniest last week, it wasn’t actually meant to be funny. Snowden most likely left clues in the file’s metadata, which can be modified by anyone, and more importantly, read by anyone.

It’s highly doubtful those looking to trace Snowden’s methodology has a clue what they’re doing.

If you’ve ever worked in IT under a manger who has no clue about IT, then you can imagine what it’s like at the NSA (as well as the FBI and CIA).

Most “executives” have zero clue about technology, other than to knee-jerk a hatred against all of it until they decide it’s not harmful (and good luck with that – they still find the fax machine a threat because documents can be scanned and sent instantly).

By stripping people of their clearances, they’ve only made their own job more difficult. “Smith, get me the file on Johnson!” “I can’t sir! I don’t have clearance!”

In short, the NSA is going through their employee roster and evaluating every employee with much more stringent background checks. I’m quite sure employees are being interviewed and being asked questions of their co-workers, to find anyone who doesn’t like what the NSA is doing.

You can bet friends and family members of employees are also being questioned, especially kids. They have a hard time lying to adults.

The NSA is completely out of control, but this is expected. Even when it was formed, members of Congress were sure it would be a matter of time before they abused their power.

It was seen once before, when Hoover ran the FBI.

What astounds me is how our Congress can sit idly by and allow it to continue. I’m also astounded how the hell people being represented by Feinstein aren’t asking her to get the hell out of office since it’s clear she’s not acting on behalf of neither her constituents or the Constitution.

Until people can stop taking 5 minutes by posting their opinions on Facebook and take real action, the NSA will continue to abuse the rights of everyone, regardless of their status as an American.

Jeremy Lyman (profile) says:

Re: Re: watch for watermarks, leakers

By stripping people of their clearances, they’ve only made their own job more difficult.

Yes, which makes me a little bit hopeful that this action will start to address what I see as one of the contributing factors to this whole mess, over-classification.

I don’t like it, but I can cope with the fact that my government needs to keep some secrets from its people. But someone decided that it would be easier to keep most things secret instead, and that’s unacceptable. Particularly the state secrets that are hidden because they are embarrassing.

Having 100,000 less gophers to push documents around makes it that much harder to create and over-classify millions of documents; which in turn should make it easier for public welfare organizations to push back on what does get classified. The NSA might think of it as an unintended consequence, and there may be fewer potential leakers, but I think this is a win against everything-is-secret-by-default culture.

Anonymous Coward says:

In the intelligence community’s view, every disclosure is a problem because it betrays the people who collected that data. There’s a rationale on why it was classified

1. I’m pretty sure he just admitted the intelligence community doesn’t believe in whistleblowers
2. He should’ve added “except when a high-ranking member does it, then it’s fine”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

That’s one nice things about the British system – most people with security clearances are employed by the civil service as a whole, so if they lose their clearances they can be reassigned to somewhere like the hydrographer’s department, Ag and Fish, War Graves, etc. where they can keep their rank and seniority and the security implications are far less important.

beltorak (profile) says:

Re: That's not how these things work

No one is trawling through the vast trove of collected data trying to make sense of it. When it is combed through for data on specific “targets”, elements of it are selectively extracted to find evidence of guilt. Any number of things can be misconstrued to make the target look guilty. That’s part of what makes these programs so dangerous. Fewer eyeballs is actually worse.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The problem with “authorized leaks” could be solved by having a department for handling media and letting them be credited for the leaks. The only reason such hasn’t happened yet seems to be that they want to be able to use authorized leaks as a tool of misinformation, rather than taking credit for it as that would make it possible to blame them for lying…

Besides, the only way to improve the situation with a lot of unauthorized public leaks is to make it anonymous to bring forth concerns internally, making the internal concern sharing procedures much more comfortable and having some specific action taken to make concerns more of a priority to solve. Stripping 100,000 people of authorization may be an improvement given the number, but it is not dealing with the “why?” of the leaking.

Anonymous Coward says:

Government's Response To Snowden? Strip 100,000 Potential Whistleblowers Of Their Security Clearances

An ineffective response, in the long term. As long as the human element is part of the equation, rejection of abhorrent behavior will persist.

Still, it suffices for the short term, I suppose. For the long term, I would advise investing in robotics and artificial intelligence. Machines are much easier to strip of morals than men.
The US government should consider the current assassin drones to be merely the tip of the iceberg. Currently they have to be piloted by hand. With a few technological breakthroughs they could be entirely autonomous; flooding the airspace above cities, gunning down anyone unfortunate enough to look like potential trouble. This would eliminate the possibility of rebellion, allowing any arbitrary tyrannies to be imposed on the populace with impunity.

There is, of course, the simple alternative: not perpetuating needless atrocities upon undeserving people in the first place. However, the government seems uninclined to consider that possibility, so it’s largely a moot point.

Austin (profile) says:

Invalid Math

So let me see if I get this straight…

1) There are around 370 million people in America
2) Over 3 million have some level of government security clearance, most the same or even more than Snowden had
3) We’re stripping 100,000 of them of that clearance, but not firing them, just taking away the clearance

So…what did this accomplish? I mean, 1 out of every 100 people in America has the ability to do what Snowden did, more or less. A full 1% of the (I think) 4th most populated country on Earth. So what good does stripping 100,000 clearances do? This isn’t even a subatomic particle within a single drop in the bucket.

Hell, the number of people who still have their clearances who this is going to anger is probably more than 100,000. If any of them were considering leaking information, wouldn’t this spur them to do it quicker, for fear they’ll lose theirs next and be unable to?

Talk about backwards logic.

Former Government Employee says:

Security Clearances

I think taking away 100k security clearances is not that big a deal, and people should avoid interpreting the reduction in clearances as being all that meaningful.

I had several security clearances between 1975 and 1993, for a variety of projects. The problem with security clearances is that they never really “expire,” unless you leave the government or the company that grants you the clearance, OR, if someone goes through the records and realizes that you have moved to a position that does not require a clearance, or requires a lower level clearance.

In the time I had a clearance, I think we had two or three clearance “purges,” where thousands of people lost their clearance, mostly because they did not need it any longer. In some cases, people had left the government or the company that provided the clearance, and records had not been updated. If anything, a proper clearance “purge” would likely remove far more than 100k clearances, so it sounds as though this was a relatively limited purge compared to the purges I have seen. Was I ever affected by a purge? Yes, I had my clearance downgraded once (and later upgraded again when I got onto another project).

As for those who think that loss of a security clearance is any big deal to government employees, it is not (unless you are on the verge of getting fired, which is a separate issue). People get clearances and lose clearances all the time.

Incidentally, beside the obvious issue of allowing people access to documents for which they have no need to know, the removal of clearances is done for a much more basic, obvious reason – cost. To maintain a clearance costs money – a lot of money. Indeed, if the government was to do a better job of eliminating unneeded clearances, it could probably save tens of millions a year, maybe even hundreds of millions.

One last point…people seem to think that having a security clearance gives you all kinds of access to stuff. Most people will never have the kind of access that Snowden had. I was very limited in the kinds of classified information I could access – no where near what Snowden could – because I did not work in that kind of environment. Such is the situation with most people having security clearances. Most people can access only limited amounts of classified information, which also points out a two-edged sword when it comes to release of any classified information: since most information at the secret level or above is accessible to a relatively small group of people, it can be really easy to figure out the potential leakers, which may be one of the biggest deterrents to whistle blowing (assuming it is needed).

Incidentally, none of the classified information I accessed was related to any potential wrong-doing by the government, so there was never any whistle-blowing need to release any of that information.

Janet Hudgins says:


This is really something. The government, yours and mine, get caught wire tapping, just like Nixon in 1974, and victims get punished, not the predator. How did our democracy get so far out of focus, twisted? Of course it was globalization, neoliberalism, privatization, capitalism. All those isms and not one designed for humans or good governance.

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