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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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Jan 2016 @ 6:38pm

    Could be a lot worse

    I'm told this is something that happens from time to time and I won't speculate on the reasons.
    He's just lucky the security apparatus didn't put him on the no-fly list.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Jan 2016 @ 6:41pm

    Another lesson in "Why Government fails" kindly brought to you by the US Government!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Jan 2016 @ 7:12pm

    No good deed goes unpunished.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Jan 2016 @ 7:16pm

    I'm not so sure the security apparatus wants Snowden-esque techies despite being among the best and brightest. They're in a weird position right now.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Mark Wing, 29 Jan 2016 @ 7:19pm

    Having a moral compass automatically disqualifies you from government service.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 29 Jan 2016 @ 7:33pm

      Re:

      It's that kind of rhetoric that fuels the current state of mutual hostility. It's not productive and it hurts everyone involved - especially techies who find themselves living in a panopticon of their own design.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        That One Guy (profile), 29 Jan 2016 @ 9:19pm

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        art guerrilla (profile), 30 Jan 2016 @ 7:00am

        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...

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 30 Jan 2016 @ 8:13am

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 30 Jan 2016 @ 12:18pm

          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.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Jan 2016 @ 7:33pm

    Work to change the system from within the system they said!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Magnum Scorsese, 29 Jan 2016 @ 8:17pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 30 Jan 2016 @ 7:51am

      Re: Drug Testing and Security Clearances

      Your comment is accurate for secret and below, but not for TS or above.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Magnum Scorsese, 30 Jan 2016 @ 12:26pm

        Re: Re: Drug Testing and Security Clearances

        That is incorrect. You may be confusing the requirements of your specific program with TS SCI/SAP in general.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      seedeevee (profile), 30 Jan 2016 @ 1:01pm

      Re: Drug Testing and Security Clearances

      He seemed strangely/prominently proud of the passed drug test.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      White House Employee, 31 Jan 2016 @ 7:27pm

      Re: Drug Testing and Security Clearances

      A drug test may or may not be required for a clearance, but all EOP employees are required to take a pre-employement drug test and are subject to random testing.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Mark Wing, 29 Jan 2016 @ 8:26pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Must Love Frogs, 30 Jan 2016 @ 6:52am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Jan 2016 @ 2:13am

    Qualifications

    No integrity please! Slimey yes men (team players) only allowed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Jan 2016 @ 8:17am

    WH wanted someone to lean on Facebook & Twitter

    to suppress free speech.

    Soltani wouldn't do it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Coyne Tibbets (profile), 30 Jan 2016 @ 8:48am

    Revenge

    No. Can't be. The agencies would never do anything vengeful.

    Just ask them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ryunosuke (profile), 30 Jan 2016 @ 10:00am

    Dear Michael Hayden

    The following people would like to talk to you.

    Mark Felt - Watergate
    Daniel Ellsberg - Pentagon Papers/Vietnam
    Linda Tripp - Monica Lewinski
    Frank Serpico - NYPD (1973)
    Bradly Manning - US Army/Wikileaks

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    BrainDustBunny, 30 Jan 2016 @ 3:25pm

    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

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Lisboeta, 31 Jan 2016 @ 6:28am

    In a way, I'm glad Ashkan Soltani was denied clearance and has resigned now. Because, sure as eggs are eggs, it wouldn't have been too far into that new job when he found his principles compromised.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Whatever (profile), 31 Jan 2016 @ 9:10am

    "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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), 1 Feb 2016 @ 3:34am

      Re:

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

      Considering it's common knowledge by now that would prevent basically every American that read the news. Awesome.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 1 Feb 2016 @ 8:24am

      Re:

      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.

      How is that different from what Mike said?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        klaus (profile), 1 Feb 2016 @ 9:02am

        Re: Re:

        That's what I was thinking. Whatever is right, but fails to draw the conclusion that it was an individual who put that flag on Ashkan Soltani's file.

        Not data, but someone's view.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Whatever (profile), 1 Feb 2016 @ 10:26am

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 1 Feb 2016 @ 11:45am

          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

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 1 Feb 2016 @ 12:39pm

      Re:

      … the mundane methods by which data is collected, reports submitted, and names added to little lists…

      Banality noun ba·nal·i·ty \bə-ˈna-lə-tē, bā-, also ba-\
      : something that is boring or ordinary; especially : an uninteresting statement : a banal remark

      : the quality of being ordinary or banal

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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