How Secrecy Limits Diversity24 views
The Security-Clearance Process Keeps Many Qualified People Out of America’s National Security Workforce – By Matthew Connelly and Patricia Irvin
In December 2022, the Department of Energy announced that it was righting a historic wrong. After an unprecedented reexamination of a decades-old case, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm decided to void the 1954 revocation of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s security clearance. The case of Oppenheimer, the famous nuclear physicist, sheds light on how the United States decides who can be trusted with access to classified information. The clearance process ultimately determines who has the knowledge and the power to play a role in defending the United States against all threats, foreign and domestic.
Oppenheimer’s revocation, Granholm announced, resulted from “the bias and unfairness of the process.” Despite being known as the “father of the atom bomb” for his crucial work developing the weapon, Oppenheimer rankled officials by opposing high-level decisions on thermonuclear weapons and the postwar world order. He was also the son of German Jewish immigrants, with friends and relatives who had politically progressive views—several were communists—at a time when many Americans treated Jews as intrinsically foreign and untrustworthy. The hearing board that decided Oppenheimer’s fate was made up of three men. Before the case was even presented, one of those men, Ward Evans, made his views clear when he declared that “almost without exception those who turned up before security review boards with subversive backgrounds and interests were Jewish.”
Declassified CIA documents show that, even almost 60 years ago, government officials acknowledged the lack of diversity in the national security workforce and recognized that the security clearance process disproportionately excluded Black job applicants.
Exonerating Oppenheimer is hardly the end of the story, however. The security clearance process and other systems that determine who can access classified information—starting with who gets offered sensitive positions—have excluded countless other Americans, typically with little or no explanation or redress. In fact, Oppenheimer had far more advantages than others who have come under this kind of scrutiny. After all, Oppenheimer’s family was wealthy, and he was well connected. Since details about the stripping or denial of security clearances in individual cases are typically unavailable, there is no way to determine with real precision how many such cases have, over decades, shaped the composition of the foreign policymaking and national security community. But the limited information that is available suggests that people from marginalized groups in the United States have consistently had greater difficulty obtaining and retaining clearances than others. Along with clear disparities (and discrimination) in hiring and promotion, this is an important factor in explaining why people from these groups are less likely to hold national security positions—both relative to their representation in society at large and relative to representation in government jobs that do not require such clearances. This is especially true of the most senior positions where higher levels of security clearances are required.
A LACK OF INTELLIGENCE
The stakes in examining this question are enormous. The recent case of Jack Teixeira, a young, white airman who leaked classified documents to friends online, makes clear that granting someone access to national security information carries genuine risks, and just one mistake can have serious consequences. In Teixeira’s case, the system erred in too easily granting him a clearance, despite numerous red flags. But in the case of many female and nonwhite applicants, it may have been unfair and discriminatory in denying them clearances. If the process discriminates against people who are already marginalized and favors other groups who have long benefited from preferential access, the clearance system offers another example of how structural inequality has both reflected and reinforced disadvantage in the United States.
Beyond the effects on individuals and communities—as grave as they may be—there are also serious national security implications in how the United States recruits and retains people to work for the government. Empirical research has demonstrated that diverse groups are less conformist and more deliberative, leading to more accurate and evidence-based decision-making. More diverse firms outperform less diverse ones, are more innovative, are better able to attract younger applicants, and have higher rates of employee retention. Moreover, the U.S. national security community would benefit from attracting individuals with greater experience and knowledge of cultural differences. As a white CIA officer with over 34 years of service put it in an interview with ABC News in 2020: “Our adversaries and enemies are not going to be privileged, white suburbanites. . . . A large body of our spies are not really up to the challenge of dealing with different people and relating to them in an effective way.”
Declassified CIA documents show that, even almost 60 years ago, government officials acknowledged the lack of diversity in the national security workforce and recognized that the security clearance process disproportionately excluded Black job applicants. But even after a series of high-profile efforts to recruit more people from underrepresented groups, the Annual Demographic Report of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence shows that there are still significantly fewer people from these groups in the national security workforce than in the federal workforce as a whole (27.6 percent versus 38.6 percent). At the highest level of leadership in the intelligence community—the Senior Executive Service—seven percent are Black and 3.5 percent are Hispanic or Latino, a third of their share of the general population (12 and 18 percent respectively). One reason is that employees who are members of minority racial groups are more likely to resign: as years of service in the intelligence community increase, minority officer representation decreases. At the FBI, African Americans make up 11.3 percent of the workforce but only 4.7 percent of its special agents.
Women also remain underrepresented, especially in more senior positions. They account for 32.4 percent of the Senior Executive Service in the intelligence community, compared with 44.2 percent of the federal workforce. At the FBI, 23 percent of special agents are women. But women have been able to make more substantial progress over time. At the State Department, for instance, 35 percent of Foreign Service officers are women, compared with 24 percent in 1987. The percent of Black foreign service officers during the same period went from 5.4 percent to seven percent.
The historical record provides overwhelming evidence of how, for many decades, discriminatory hiring and screening practices created a remarkably homogeneous national security community. J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the FBI, had a preference for hiring his fraternity brothers with whom he had celebrated the Confederacy at George Washington University.
In 2021, in a bid to address this problem, the Biden administration announced via executive order a new push to increase the number of hires from traditionally underrepresented groups. It is not the first such initiative. Rather, a lack of diversity in the national security community has been recognized as a problem for several decades. It was already a high-profile issue in the 1990s after multiple employment discrimination cases and the release of damning internal research. One example is the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s 1989 report to Congress about the underrepresentation of women and racial minorities in all levels of the State Department and, more severely, in the Foreign Service and in senior levels. Previous directives and exhortations have been insufficient; they have run into policies and practices unique to the national security community that are ostensibly designed to ensure that personnel are loyal and trustworthy, but which have made the community particularly resistant to change.
The historical record provides overwhelming evidence of how, for many decades, discriminatory hiring and screening practices created a remarkably homogeneous national security community. J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the FBI, had a preference for hiring his fraternity brothers with whom he had celebrated the Confederacy at George Washington University. These FBI agents—virtually all white and all male until the 1970s—served as gatekeepers standing in the way of anyone seeking a job that required a security clearance. As the retired diplomat Chris Richardson has noted, when the United States’ reputation abroad suffered as a result of racial segregation in the 1950s, the State Department still “turned to the security clearance process to bar Blacks from the Foreign Service, claiming that many had been members of ‘subversive’ organizations such as the N.A.A.C.P.” The perception that Black people could not obtain security clearances (even though the grounds for denial were questionable at best) meant that senior State Department officials did not even try to appoint them. As Secretary of State John Foster Dulles explained in 1953, there was a “problem of getting colored people cleared by the FBI.”
For decades, the government made it a matter of policy to deny clearance to non-conforming sexual minorities and systematically removed gay people from the ranks. This was ostensibly because they were vulnerable to blackmail, posing a national security risk. But when the Pentagon finally studied the issue in 1991, it could not identify a single example of a queer person who had betrayed their country because of the threat of being outed. Even so, the Clinton administration faced staunch resistance when it sought to remove the ban on gay people serving in the military. In a 1993 White House meeting, Marine Corps Commandant Carl Mundy insisted that for someone to identify as gay was equivalent to them saying, “I’m [a member of the] KKK, [a] Nazi, [or a] rapist.” Nevertheless, in 1995, President Bill Clinton put an end to the automatic disqualification of queer people from security clearances by including “sexual orientation” within the antidiscrimination statement pertaining to access to classified documents.
The 1990s marked the start of a new era in which government agencies began to acknowledge that such attitudes undermined their ability to accomplish their mission. In 1991, when the CIA first surveyed its own employees, nearly half of white women at the agency said they had been sexually harassed, and well over half of Black employees experienced racial harassment. Black employees tended to be hired at a lower level than whites with the same background, and women tended to be promoted more slowly. All in all, 90 percent of those filling positions in the top four management ranks were white men—barely half of one percent were Black. When the study’s authors asked the 11 most senior CIA officials about the agency’s lack of diversity, their justification was that women and minorities were “reluctant to take the risks necessary to advance.” Other stereotypes included the idea that “women are both too assertive and not assertive enough” and that “minorities are not good at negotiating.” In fact, people from marginalized communities who somehow earned a place in the national security establishment found, over and over again, that they could only survive if they kept their mouths shut with regard to anything that might seem like a complaint about discrimination. The CIA study observed that the number who filed even an informal complaint was “remarkably small.”
One reason it has been so hard to assess and eliminate discrimination from the security clearance process is that at no point in the process is information officially recorded about race or ethnicity. Consequently, it is not possible to obtain data based on race or ethnicity about clearance denials or suspensions, measure disparities, and thus determine the nature and dimensions of possible discriminatory outcomes.
The only government study that assessed potential bias in the offices responsible for handling security clearances was conducted in 1994. It reviewed data concerning potential racial disparities in security clearance suspensions at three Department of Energy facilities. All three showed statistically significant differences. For instance, in the fiscal year 1992, Native Americans and Hispanics made up about two percent and about 23 percent, respectively, of all employees at the department’s Albuquerque operations. But 12 percent of the suspensions involved Native Americans and 42 percent involved Hispanics, rising to 47 percent the next year. At the Savannah River facility, African Americans made up about 20 percent of employees holding clearances but accounted for 41 percent of those whose clearances were suspended. The report concluded that the department should investigate and take “appropriate corrective action” if it found discrimination. The department established a process to obtain data but made “no further plans to determine whether disparities exist or the need for corrective actions.”
Despite a lack of data, societal and structural factors relating to race may help explain denials and suspensions. A 2021 RAND study explored factors that disproportionately affect nonwhite applicants. For instance, the top reason why clearances are not granted is “financial considerations.” As a group, Blacks and Latinos tend to have significantly higher student loans and unsecured consumer debt and lower credit scores than their white counterparts. The RAND study also suggested that clearance denials resulting from having foreign relatives are more likely to affect underrepresented communities. A record of having been arrested, even without an indictment or conviction, can also thwart a clearance; this weighs against many nonwhite applicants owing to the fact that people of color are disproportionately subjected to police stops and arrests for lesser infractions.
An additional challenge that racial and ethnic minorities face is the length of time it takes to complete the clearance process. In 2021, CIA Director William Burns testified that it takes over 600 days from completion of the application to receipt of the security clearance that allows a person to work at the CIA. Long wait times disadvantage poorer applicants, who disproportionately tend to be nonwhite. Finally, anecdotal evidence suggests that potential nonwhite applicants sometimes self-select out of the process. The process can be intimidating, as interviewers, who are often FBI agents, investigate intimate aspects of the applicant’s life. There are strict legal restrictions on the types of questions that a job applicant can be asked, but security clearance interviewers have significant latitude. These problems can collectively deter applicants.
The Teixeira case shows the other side of the coin. Screeners should have uncovered clearly worrisome signs that he was not—as required of anyone applying for a security clearance—“reliable, trustworthy, of good conduct and character, and of complete and unswerving loyalty to the United States.” None of the standard questions, whether about drug use, foreign connections, or money problems, would have revealed why he was such a risky prospect. But Teixeira was notorious among his classmates for racist and antisocial views and his obsession with weapons. The fact that he came from a military family—his father served in the same intelligence unit—may have given false assurance to his screeners.
A HOSTILE WORKPLACE
Even after obtaining a position and a security clearance, people who might bring more diverse perspectives to the national security workforce face a variety of challenges in seeking to move up the ladder. These include the daily grind of bias and harassment in the workplace, as well as the multitude of microaggressions—subtle negative, condescending, or stereotyped comments and actions that may or may not be intentional. For instance, in recent years, some intelligence community veterans have published scathing attacks on the very idea of diversifying the workforce as “political correctness” or even as the long-term result of a Soviet-era disinformation campaign that aimed to exploit racial divisions in the United States. They insist that the necessary changes will make it harder to recruit “men with first-class brains” who are willing to work hard and claim that white people more easily blend into operational environments.
A common theme among the people we spoke to with careers in the national security community is that diversity committees and training sessions do not help to advance the careers of women and racial minorities. Success in the intelligence services is often dependent on having a mentor to guide an employee through the unwritten rules of the institution and recommend them for advantageous positions, many of which require additional security checks. But finding a mentor depends upon a range of factors and can be challenging. Senior white men in an organization may feel more of a natural affinity to younger white men or to women who remind them of a sister or daughter. Others may decide not to try with minorities due to concerns that they might inadvertently offend, or with women because of concerns of risking a sexual harassment claim.
Lacking guidance and sponsorship, people of color often get assignments related to their racial identity. Black diplomats get posted to African countries, Latinos get assigned to South America, and FBI agents of color are given civil rights cases. “For the most part, Blacks are not involved in hot spots like Russia, North Korea, Iran, Ukraine, nuclear issues, etc.,” one State Department veteran told us. She added that “they are placed in jobs where they have little power and aren’t in sensitive positions where they require high-level clearances.” In order for Blacks and Latinos to progress in the State Department, they need to be posted in areas where they have not traditionally served in large numbers, such as in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. But they find it difficult to get these kinds of assignments that are best for career advancement and sometimes even the right advice about which assignments those are. Although many welcome the opportunity to serve in positions that utilize their particular knowledge of a language or culture—which might be in the increasingly polyglot and cosmopolitan cities of Europe and the Persian Gulf—none want to be pigeonholed.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders confront other challenges. They sometimes face significantly longer security clearance investigations, usually centering around whether they might have family or other ties to countries that are U.S. adversaries, even though their families may have emigrated generations ago. In addition, security concerns often cause restrictions to be placed on where they can serve that are tied to their ethnic backgrounds. This means that, at a time when Asia is more important than ever, the United States is depriving itself of a rich pool of cultural and linguistic expertise.
The decision to acknowledge the wrong done to Oppenheimer could establish a useful precedent. If the national security establishment wishes to send a clear signal of cultural change, it could reopen the files of other individuals who were unjustly denied a place in the national security community and commission studies to determine how discrimination in earlier decades may have shaped the system. To expose continuing bias and discrimination, the Biden administration should issue an executive order directing departments and agencies to collect and publish the data necessary to identify abiding disparities in clearance denials, adjudications, and appeals.
More must be done. Government training programs—intended to curb bias, whether explicit or implicit—need to be redesigned and proven to be effective. This is particularly important when it comes to training for security clearance investigators and adjudicators. The Teixeira case shows that officials need to be aware of how implicit bias may lead them not only to discriminate against groups that are already underrepresented in the national security workforce but prevent them from perceiving character flaws and ideological commitments that make others unfit and untrustworthy.
Mentorship programs should also be based on best practices and continually evaluated. Participants must be willing and interested volunteers who feel at ease with open discussion about the types of gender, racial, ethnic, and sexual orientation issues that their mentees may face. They must also be comfortable giving open and candid advice, even when it is not favorable. Finally, they should see themselves as not only providing technical advice but also coaching and supporting their mentees on a confidential and trusted basis.
Department and agency leaders need to be held accountable and demonstrate progress. They should expect and plan for resistance. It will sometimes come from some of the organizations’ best staff members but will nevertheless have to be addressed head-on. Unconscious bias exists in most, if not all, of us. How an agency addresses it when it comes from an unexpected, valuable, and productive source will be a challenge—one that cannot be ignored or pushed aside.
As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed in 1997, a whole culture of secrecy has grown inside government. It is a self-replicating culture that resists outside scrutiny and enforces a sense of exclusivity through the use of initiation rituals, code words, and color-coded badges. But the secrecy and power of the national security establishment make it all the more vital that citizens have confidence that its ranks represent all of the American people, in all their diversity. And it must redress or at least acknowledge the wrongs done to all too many of their fellow citizens who tried to serve their country but were unfairly deemed untrustworthy by a government that, for too long, has not earned their trust.