Former FTC CTO Ashkan Soltani Denied Security Clearance, Perhaps Because He Helped In Reporting On Snowden Docs

from the bad-news dept

Ashkan Soltani is a well known privacy expert who (among other things) worked with Barton Gellman at the Washington Post to analyze the Snowden documents for story worthy information — an effort that won that series a Pulitzer Prize. Soltani has been hugely instrumental in reporting on other privacy-related issues as well, including being a part of the team that also a Pulitzer Prize finalist for the Wall Street Journal’s excellent What They Know series on digital privacy issues. Basically he has a long history of doing great journalism around privacy. For most of the last year, he was also the Chief Technology Officer at the FTC. Back in December, it was announced that he had moved over to work for the federal government CTO, Megan Smith, in the White House as a senior advisor. The CTO’s office has been collecting some fairly amazing tech talent recently.

However, now, just a few weeks after Soltani took the job in the White House, he’s announced that he’s left the job because he’s been denied the security clearance necessary to do his job:

If you can’t read that statement, it says:

I am disappointed to announce my departure as Senior Advisor to the White House Chief Technology Officer, Megan Smith.

Smith hired me in December from the Federal Trade Commission, where I had served as Chief Technologist since late 2014. My mandate was to help Smith and her team work through hard questions on consumer privacy, the ethics of big data, and the recruitment of skilled technologists to government.

Those are vital issues, which have occupied me in and out of government, and I will continue to contribute what I can in other venues.

Last week the White House Office of Personnel Security notified me that I would not receive the security clearance necessary to continue to work at the White House. I’m told this is something that happens from time to time and I won’t speculate on the reasons. I do want to say that I am proud of my work, I passed the mandatory drug screening some time ago, and the FBI background check was still underway. There was no allegation that it was based on my integrity or the quality of my work.

I was honored to serve at the FTC and in the White House. I wish the CTO and her amazing team success in the important work ahead.

Soltani says he won’t speculate, but from the rest of his statement it’s not hard to guess what the real reason is: his work with the Snowden documents in 2013. Back when Soltani first went to the FTC in late 2014, you had folks like former CIA and NSA boss Michael Hayden whine about his work on the Snowden documents and suggest it makes it inappropriate for him to hold a government job.

“I’m not trying to demonize this fella, but he’s been working through criminally exposed documents and making decisions about making those documents public,” said Michael Hayden, a former NSA director who also served as CIA director from 2006 to 2009. In a telephone interview with FedScoop, Hayden said he wasn’t surprised by the lack of concern about Soltani’s participation in the Post’s Snowden stories. “I have no good answer for that.”

And then you had former NSA General Counsel (and proud Techdirt hater), Stewart Baker arguing that Soltani should be barred from government work for his work on the Snowden docs:

Stewart Baker, a former NSA general counsel, said, while he’s not familiar with the role Soltani would play at the FTC, there are still problems with his appointment. “I don’t think anyone who justified or exploited Snowden’s breach of confidentiality obligations should be trusted to serve in government,” Baker said.

So it doesn’t take too much reading between the lines to suggest that those in charge of handing out security clearance decided to “punish” Soltani by denying him clearance.

Of course, beyond being generally screwed up, it also is a bit ironic since Soltani’s role was supposed to be about convincing techies to work in government. Want to know how not to do that? It’s by pettily “punishing” Soltani for his journalism work.

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Comments on “Former FTC CTO Ashkan Soltani Denied Security Clearance, Perhaps Because He Helped In Reporting On Snowden Docs”

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39 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: West Coast [was Could be a lot worse]

Heard a vague rumor that he’s planning on returning to the West Coast.

White House denies clearance to tech researcher with links to Snowden”, by Danny Yadron, The Guardian, 29 Jan 2016

 . . . .

So like many techies before him, Soltani said he now likely will leave Washington.

“I’m definitely ready to go back to the west coast for a bit,” said Soltani, an avid mountain biker. “I just wish I hadn’t spent all my money on suits instead of bike parts.”

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

NSA – Mass indiscriminate spying on the american public, lying about it constantly, repeated attempts to undermine security simply to make their job/voyeuristic fetish easier.

CIA – Kidnaps, tortures, kills prisoners.

FBI – Cooks up ‘terrorist’ plots, roping in the dumbest and/or most mentally challenged people they can find to point to as the ‘terrorists’ they ‘heroically’ managed to save the american public from.

Given the above, and the fact that the government hates nothing more than a whistleblower exposing it’s activities to the public, yeah, I’m sure they’d much rather that anyone with a working moral compass find work elsewhere. They want people who follow orders, not people who think about them.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

NO, it is EXACTLY that kind of unvarnished truth and realistic assessment which needs to be said REPEATEDLY, and LOUDLY in contravention to Empire’s lapdog propaganda machine we call the mainstream media…
NOT talking about it is the ‘sin’, NOT facing up to the corrupted system is the problem…
YOU are the problem when you call for abject authoritarian acceptance of any/all outrages foisted on us all…

unless/until the critical mass of sheeple bare their fangs at Empire will anything change…
power NEVER devolves voluntarily…
NEVER…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

It’s that kind of rhetoric that fuels the current state of mutual hostility.

There needs to be some hostility towards some of the stuff going on in the government.

It’s not productive and it hurts everyone involved…

Not productive for those in the wrong. It’s good for everyone else, my little apologist friend.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Ugh. YOU and your fellow travelers are the useful idiots who enable the government to pull this shit in the first place. The utterly retarded idea that no one who works for the government can have a moral compass is a self-fulfilling prophecy. You complain that the government is behaving evilly while simultaneously leaving no room for anyone in government to do the right thing.

So what are you left with? No government at all? Good luck with that ayn rand bullshit – that’s a world where the Trump company town outright surveils you and your only recourse is to be a hermit living in a cave.

Magnum Scorsese says:

Drug Testing and Security Clearances

FWIW – Drug testing is not part of getting security clearance. I know this because (a) I’ve held multiple security clearances and (b) I have a policy of refusing to work for any organization that has drug testing as a per-requisite. (I am fortunate enough to have fuck-you money in the bank so I it is easy for me to stick to my principles). They can (and do) ask you if you’ve used illegal drugs – the SF86 form has a section specifically for it, but testing is not part of the process.

However, in some cases, if there is ‘sufficient’ reason to suspect illegal drug use they can make you choose between taking a drug test or having your clearance revoked. But that is not part of getting cleared, only in cases where you’ve done something really stupid while holding a clearance. FWIW, they can also revoke your clearance for other penny-ante things like getting too many speeding tickets.

Mark Wing (user link) says:

The defense community thinks it will earn a partnership with the tech community by just repeating “but, terrorism” enough times. That kind of make-it-true-with-repetition tactic doesn’t work on nerds. It’s not hostility; it’s clarity. The IT community sees right through bullshit. There’s going to be mistrust until the narrative changes to something more than sound bites and hyperbole.

Must Love Frogs says:

Re: Re:

You have an inflated opinion of the “tech community.” They are just people like everyone else. The security-industrial complex doesn’t need to do better than sound-bites and hyperbole, they just need different sound-bites and hyperbole. Also more money – like all those federal agencies with contracts for cloud services – can be pretty convincing too.

BrainDustBunny says:

political security clearance

“political hits” have bypassed “rule of law” as the NEW WORLD ORDER LAW.

continuity of government itself is the threat.

If the FBI can’t obey their oath, and go get that bitch then
the United States is finished.

I would have Loretta Lynch arrested (right now), and Eric Holder and on down the line. Heading over to the IRS… Heading over the the FCC… Heading over to the USDA… Heading over to

See all these are not needed. They aren’t in the Constitution!

Thy oath breaking horsepoo is mega assanine
That’s the STATE of the United States Of America

Until these leaders have Nausea every day all day, 24/7 cause they are SCARED– they aren’t FEELING The people’s will (let alone begin to understand the anger) yet.

See instead I been feeling butterflies 24/7 and up nights for security cause I watched as oath breaking law after law has come down in the past 15 years.

We can’t even have an honest discussion about that which enabled this horsepoo.

I have one last question. Do you really want a fight? I mean one that risks everything? That’s really the only thing holding it together isn’t it. People too scared to give up what they got. The Irony is they will have NOTHING if this horsepoo agenda goes forward.

(this stuff is my opinion not a THREAT)

Dumb all over with a little ugly on the side – Frank Zappa

Whatever (profile) says:

“So it doesn’t take too much reading between the lines to suggest that those in charge of handing out security clearance decided to “punish” Soltani by denying him clearance. “

It’s an interesting conclusion, but I tend to go along with the much simpler thing: He was implicated in some way with Snowden, and as such, there is a flag on his file that won’t permit him to get the security level needed. I don’t attribute to malicious action what is more easily explained by the mundane methods by which data is collected, reports submitted, and names added to little lists that say “don’t let this one in”.

Anyone who touched anything from Manning or Snowden can pretty much assume they will never, ever have enough clearance for this sort of job.

Whatever (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

My view differs in the sense that I am not assigning malicious intent to the flag. Mike suggests it’s “revenge” or “punishment” from some disgruntled government employee, while I suggest it’s much more general list of anyone who helped or benefited from the Snowdon documents as being perhaps less trustworthy or perhaps not suitable for having access to secret documents.

I don’t think of it as malicious, just the facts.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I don’t think of it as malicious…

  In governments by bureaucracy decrees appear in their naked purity as though they were no longer issued by powerful men, but were the incarnation of power itself and the administrator only its accidental agent. There are no general principles which simple reason can understand behind the decree, but ever-changing circumstances which only an expert can know in detail. People ruled by decree never know what rules them because of the impossibility of understanding decrees in themselves and the carefully organized ignorance of specific circumstances and their practical significance in which all administrators keep their subjects. 

            —— Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951

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