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Feds Deploy Massive ‘Pre-Crime’ Dragnet on Millions of Americans

Once upon a time one applied for a government position that required a clearance with the expectation that in three or four months the process would be completed and the authorization would or would not be issued. I experienced the drill on three occasions for top-secret clearances, once for the Department of Defense (DOD) and twice for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Each government agency then managed its own security, and largely does today, in spite of last year’s creation of the National Background Investigation Board [1]. A subsidiary of the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management, the board was intended to coordinate and resolve a massive backlog of clearances. Currently the processing delay in issuing more than 70,000 pending top-secret clearances is approaching one year and there is also a large backlog of existing clearances that are up for reauthorization and under review.

Back in my time there were major differences in how the various national-security components ran their background investigations. The DOD clearance was largely document driven, relying on police reports and public records from the various jurisdictions that I had lived in supplemented by a brief personal interview with the chief of police in the town in New Jersey where I had spent the most time. That pretty much was it and the check did not even include confirmation of the university degree that I claimed to have, as no one asked for my approval to obtain that information. The investigator clearly was looking for illegal activity and did not appear to be particularly interested in confirming that I was who I said I was.

One particular sticking point with the military was the concern over my father rather than me. He was a naturalized citizen and the investigation absolutely required production of the original document confirming that fact, which we were eventually able to produce. It struck me as odd that one part of the government could not have asked another part to confirm the information, but that was the case back then and apparently is still the case now. There is little reciprocity between agencies and information is not routinely shared.

One of the reasons why is that each agency has a different perspective on what is important and what isn’t. CIA clearances were quite different than those carried out by the Army. They required a polygraph examination at an early stage and the background checks were very thorough, including interviews with bosses from summer jobs while I was in college as well as of people I knew while I was at school. There were a number of questions about possible homosexuality both directed at friends and as part of the poly, which, of course, would not be allowed today. Public records were, of course, reviewed, as were credit reports. FBI clearances went through a similar vetting, though the polygraph exam was not mandatory in all cases. For CIA there were also follow-up reviews every five years or thereabouts, though they generally consisted of another polygraph exam with particular attention paid to concealed foreign contacts and relationships, both amorous and espionage related.

A big difference between background checks back then and now was that the investigations were initially conducted by the office of security of the actual component that one was intending to work for. Today the investigations are nearly all conducted by contractors, who are themselves hungry for a piece of what has become a multi-billion dollar business. These companies are developing highly sophisticated security software to constantly update government files on its employees.

There are nearly five million United States government employees with clearances. Since Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, there has been considerable demand from Congress to reduce that number. But the national security industry is, if anything, slated to grow under President Donald Trump. The White House has added its own concerns over politically motivated leakers of classified information and would like to see mechanisms in place that continuously monitor activity by clearance holders to reveal who might have engaged in unauthorized exposure of the sensitive information that has wound up in the Washington Post and New York Times.

But instead of limiting the access to classified information, there has been instead a push for increased and even continuous monitoring [2] of those who have clearances to avoid what are described as “insider threats.” Software fixes are already in place at some agencies to scour public records and also in some cases redline users who have repeated access to certain types of files that are not directly germane to their work. As we have seen in the recent case of claimed whistleblower Reality Winner, printers connected to classified computers have features that enable identification of the actual user when there is a leak.

Using computers to continuously monitor cleared employees generally employs a variation on software that has already been developed for commercial users, including air carriers, where there is high risk and major liability if an employee is responsible for a violent incident. The special software constantly reviews criminal and civil files, such as divorce filings, bankruptcies, traffic violations, unreported foreign travel, and credit reports, to identify red flags that might result in unacceptable or even aberrant behavior on the part of the employee or prospective employee. Spies are notoriously motivated by money (Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen) and careful review of their credit reports might have revealed that they were financially stressed before they took the step of selling secrets to the Soviet Union. Washington Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis [3], who killed 12 people in September 2013, reportedly was the subject of a Rhode Island police report that revealed that he had been “hearing voices” shortly before he went on his rampage.

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Monitoring one’s civil and criminal record is not particularly easy to do, as much of the information is only available at state or even county and local levels and not all of it is online. Even though most of the information that is being screened by the government computers is public record and therefore fair game, there is concern that while something like a bankruptcy or a foreign trip is verifiable fact, other information might be either uninterpretable or completely lacking context. Even public databases frequently contain inaccurate information, including what is referred to as false negatives and false positives—and yet if they appear to cross an employer red line, they become part of the personnel file. Some of it is certainly information that once upon a time would have been regarded as both private and sensitive, such as a credit report, even though applicants for security clearances customarily waive any right to privacy when they are being background investigated.

And there is also increasing pressure coming from government managers to begin screening social media to determine if individuals are becoming disgruntled or otherwise developing hostile attitudes towards their employer. To complain about one’s job or express unpopular opinions would not exactly be criminalized but it would inevitably become an element in consideration of one’s ability to move upward in the organization, even if that is not the intention.

The bottom line is that no one has yet made the case that the continuous monitoring of five million security clearance holders would actually reduce espionage and “insider threats.” It is clear, however, that it would be enormously expensive and is therefore being pushed hard—both by prospective contractors offering their services and also hardliners in government who seek to have such a weapon in their arsenal to catch spies, leakers, and malcontents. Critics observe that while aggressive monitoring quite possibly might discover an individual instance where someone could appear to be in one of those “at risk” categories, most individuals who are moving in that direction do not necessarily allow their inner thoughts or hidden activities to become either part of the public record or an entry on Facebook.

And the greatest danger of all is over the horizon. Once the government discovers a new technology to intrude on the lives of ordinary citizens, a pretext will no doubt be developed after the next terrorist incident or insider attack to use it in ever widening circles as new threats are allegedly discovered. When that happens, we can confidently expect Patriot Act III, with a provision allowing continuous surveillance of any and all possible suspects. And there is actually a precedent. Back in 2003, the Pentagon under George W. Bush was already tinkering with what if referred to as Total Information Awareness [4] to examine predictive behavior, described at the time as the “biggest surveillance program in the history of the United States.”

Total Information Awareness was briefly implemented before being abandoned 14 years ago. Today the technical resources available are much more impressive, with the ability to have a fully automated process that can monitor, store, and recover billions of pieces of data in real time. It means that achieving continuous monitoring for everyone who resides in or travels to the United States is now a reality. Every American will become a potential victim and part of an Orwellian nightmare as a substantially mythical national security narrative trumps privacy concerns and constitutional rights. And the government, to quell any concerns, will continue to insist that what it is doing is only done to make you safer.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA offier, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Feds Deploy Massive ‘Pre-Crime’ Dragnet on Millions of Americans"

#1 Comment By Hibernian On July 21, 2017 @ 9:03 am

Maybe they could try really compartmentalizing Sensitive Compartmentalized Information (SCI.) Taking “Need to Know” seriously. This was an important issue in the Manning, Snowden, and Reality Winner cases, and quite likely others.

#2 Comment By Hibernian On July 21, 2017 @ 9:44 am

I forgot to mention Jonathan Pollard. I think he accessed tons of stuff unrelated to his own work.

#3 Comment By Ken T On July 21, 2017 @ 9:55 am

As long as Jared Kushner continues to hold “security clearance”, the phrase has lost all meaning.

#4 Comment By Hypnos On July 21, 2017 @ 10:45 am

If the security clearance regime becomes onerous enough, it will become impossible to retain talent — then there won’t be any secrets to protect.

#5 Comment By Mia On July 21, 2017 @ 11:40 am

“Washington Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis, who killed 12 people in September 2013, reportedly was the subject of a Rhode Island police report that revealed that he had been “hearing voices” shortly before he went on his rampage.”

First point looking at this quote is that you need to dig a little deeper about exactly what this shooter’s complaints were and look at patent office data, which some researchers have extensive information on. Since no one pays much attention to the things being patented, it’s easy to dismiss certain ideas when they are actually quite plausible. You need to ask more questions than you are and not assume because XYZ person said it, it just simply must be true.

Secondly, I assume this article is mainly talking about government jobs, correct? But have you paid much attention to what is going on in the civilian job market regarding this? I think it is hitting nearly every field by now, driven partly by the clergy abuse scandal as its main excuse probably, that nearly every job needs to have extensive background checks, credit checks,DUI, drug screening, and in one unbelievable case at a local bank, a release that they could interview all of your neighbors and friends if they so chose! Years ago I had wanted to work in intelligence, so now we’re doing CIA level security clearances to push your paper around in an office? I found this a level of “investigation” just outrageous.

But you see it even for just routine office work anymore. One does it, and monkey see monkey do, everyone now has to. It has become so cumbersome waiting for each new job to do them – and jobs these days don’t last very long, you’re always sitting around waiting for the next one to clear to start work – I asked for a copy from the last employer. Again, I was floored to see things like Interpol, international wanted lists, all kinds of really inappropriate lists, up to like 30 different super-spy sounding organizations to verify it’s okay that I review my employers’ parking lot receipts or some other equally inane task.

Now how those background checks have worked that I’ve seen, I’d never trust most of my employers with half of that information, and they pretty much do whatever they want with it. At one job, they did a credit check. Sound easy enough, right? But it just so happened that I had gone through two company reorganizations that left me laid off twice in a year, so I decided I would apply for a degree program that I could use in the event the next inevitable layoff came, not that I had any plans for a career change, and it was not related to the types of jobs I was doing and was fine staying in for the time being. I had just signed for the loans a month or two before I lost the second job, got the third job, and they did the credit check.

However, they didn’t just do a credit check and look at the loan amount. Busybody boss went to find out where I was going to school and for what program, discovered it was in an unrelated field, and threw a major tantrum. The boss made snide comments about how I’d better not quit right away because I was changing careers – not that any one had actually told me they looked this up and asked me what was going on mind you – and half of the people on my floor were openly discussing it. This was supposed to be a “confidential” background check, right?

To top matters off, I had to go through an outplacement training program before I lost the first job the year before, which my former employer was nice enough to arrange. I have a degree in a foreign language which never caused any particular notice applying for work before. But this was post 9-11, and I had gotten this job right before 9-11. The outplacement specialist saw that and warned me to strip any mention of foreign language ability off of my resume. I was really offended and didn’t know why it would matter all of the sudden, so I was determined to prove him wrong, leaving it on for the first few months of my job hunt. After a few really freaky interviews, I had to admit defeat and strip it off. So I got this same job with the credit report debacle with said stripped down resume. So when they found out after I got the job that I knew X language, they freaked out and decided I was some international spy! And under Trump, I am concerned it has gotten exponentially worse.

But the main point is that there’s an awful lot of feeling among all employers that they have a right to know every stupid little thing, even if they have no clue or interest in finding out what any of it actually means. And this is just looking at the background checks, not even getting into some of the other paternalistic garbage going on in corporate. Welcome to the police state.

#6 Comment By Clyde Schechter On July 21, 2017 @ 9:05 pm

Total Information Awareness–catchy phrase! Where have I heard something like that before?

Oh, yes, “To know everything for the state.” That was the motto of East Germany’s Stasi.

If you have not seen the movie “The Lives of Others,” you really should — ASAP — if only to get a glimpse of the real past of East Germany and what looks more and more like the future of the USA.

#7 Comment By Fran Macadam On July 22, 2017 @ 9:36 am

Only retired persons with secure pensions can safely express opinions.

#8 Comment By polistra On July 22, 2017 @ 6:47 pm

They’re completely missing the real problem with Reality Winner.

He or she or it was supposed to be reading and analyzing the OTHER side’s propaganda and information. That’s what an intelligence analyst does.

Reality Winner clearly thought that RT and Sputnik are pro-Trump. If he or she or it had ACTUALLY read those sources even once, he or she or it would have IMMEDIATELY realized that RT is pro-Bernie, just like Reality Winner.

Reality Winner was totally immersed in USA-side propaganda as spread by CNN/FOX/NYT/NBC/ABC/CBS/CIA/NSA. Analysts are not supposed to be lost in demented delusions.

#9 Comment By rhine-gold cowboy On July 23, 2017 @ 11:37 am

That’s why I tell friends & family to behave as if everything they do that leaves some kind of data record will eventually be searchable by some type of central processor, be it an AI or whatever, that will be capable of integrating and drawing conclusions from all the data. All of it. They call me paranoid now, and one day they’ll be nodding sadly and saying “we should have listened.”

#10 Comment By David On July 24, 2017 @ 5:37 am

Things will never change until they’re forced to. And that certainly won’t come from “inside the system”. You can forget about that ever happening. No, I’ve seen it only steadily get worse and worse until it has become unbearable. When every step you take or word you speak is somehow “questioned” then its time to leave or make peace with the fact that its only going to get uglier until the bitter end.

#11 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 24, 2017 @ 5:39 pm

I am going to approach this from a viewpoint of skeptic and perhaps over simplistic.

But the level of sophistication is just overkill and I suspect generally useless. Most of the damage done o the US on the issue of intelligence had nothing to do with outsider infiltration. They were the result of men and women who passed the gatekeepers and were in place.

It is in my vie nonsensical to tackle an issue that is not evidenced to be a problem. These are all internal problems within the agencies, unlikely to be resolved by more surveillance.

Furthermore, I think it far more unwieldy that security is conducted by outside private agencies. It would be interesting to check who audits them, and method and how often.

And finally this is telling,

“There is little reciprocity between agencies and information is not routinely shared.”

A factor in 9/11, the failure to share security information.

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I see no reason to cease the dog chasing its tail metaphors. Volume no doubt killing efficiency.

And volume as substitute for accuracy.

#12 Comment By Milt Farrow On July 27, 2017 @ 11:15 am

So let’s see, if someone connected with the US Illegal Corp decides that they want to incarcerate me for potential future crimes they can do so , Over the rifle in my dead hands they will”