I hold a top-secret federal security clearance. I’m not supposed to admit that publicly. The covert intelligence agencies I’ve worked with expect even lowly subcontractors like me to remain covert, but I’m no longer in that line of work. I figure the worst that can happen is my dormant clearance will be revoked.
Earning a high-level clearance and renewing it by law every five years isn’t easy. Forget the grueling background check that federal investigators conduct in probing virtually every aspect of your past and present. Forget also the subsequent sit-down interrogations with those same investigators who demand explanations for even the slightest discrepancy between what you claimed (or didn’t) in filling out your background questionnaire and what they dug up on you.
No, the most arduous part of the process is the questionnaire itself.
The last time I renewed my clearance, I inadvertently failed to list a silly nickname that friends had assigned me when I was a college freshman. You would’ve thought by the investigator’s stony expression that I had robbed Fort Knox.
You must reveal essentially everything about who you are and where you’ve been. This includes where you’ve worked and lived for the past seven years, any aliases used, any financial delinquencies experienced, and contact information for virtually all of your relatives. You must list where you’ve traveled abroad and your reasons for having traveled there. Do you own any foreign property? Hold any foreign business interests?
You’re also asked: “Have you ever had any contact with a foreign government, its establishments (embassies or consulates), or its representatives, whether inside or outside the U.S., other than on official U.S. government business?” You are reminded in writing that if you lie or conceal any “material facts,” you are committing a felony, punishable by fines of up to $10,000 and/or five years in prison.
Which brings us to President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Trump’s fired national security adviser, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.
If news reports are to be believed, all three men failed in their security clearance applications to disclose relevant material facts about their contacts with various Russian officials, including some with known ties to Russian intelligence services. Flynn is also purportedly under investigation for failing to disclose sizable payments he received from Russia. While the general has remained largely silent about the allegations he’s facing, Kushner and Sessions have both said in as many words that it simply slipped their minds to list everyone they probably should have when filling out the same voluminous questionnaire I did.
Were these men hiding something – a conspiracy of collusion with forces hostile to the United States, as many on the left have surmised? Perhaps only they know at this point. Whether they played a hand, unwittingly or otherwise, amid mounting evidence that Russian meddling helped Donald Trump gain the presidency remains to be seen. But to defend potentially criminal acts by invoking faulty memory is almost laughable were it not so troubling.
The last time I renewed my clearance, I inadvertently failed to list a silly nickname that friends had assigned me when I was a college freshman (Nixon was president at the time). You would’ve thought by the investigator’s stony expression that I had robbed Fort Knox. I reminded him of comedian Steve Martin’s famous “I forgot” joke back in the 1970s: “You say, ‘Steve, how can I be a millionaire and never pay taxes?’ Two simple words: I forgot.”
The investigator didn’t smile. Nor should any of us now when it comes to the president’s men and their having simply “forgotten” to reveal multiple recent contacts with the Russians. We’re talking national security here, and there’s nothing funny about that.
David Freed is a pilot, novelist and former reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He can be contacted at David-Freed.com