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Conduct Unbecoming

Had they not been elected president, neither Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama would have been able to obtain even the most basic secret clearance.

by
Rand Simberg

Bio

April 17, 2012 - 12:00 am

So the latest scandal in the Obama administration (almost simultaneously with the GSA insanity, and isn’t it hilarious that history professor and political prognosticator Allan Lichtman thought as recently as this past November that this administration had no significant scandals?) is Secret Service agents behaving badly in Cartagena, resulting in the loss of their security clearances. The article doesn’t explain why, so some might think that this is a punishment. Without their clearances, after all, they won’t be able to perform their duties, and are essentially out of a job.

But the reason that their clearances have been pulled is that they can no longer be relied upon to keep secrets. Their behavior had compromised their ability to do so and potentially opened them up to blackmail. Of course, ironically, now that everyone knows what they were doing, this is no longer an issue. Interestingly, for years during the Cold War, homosexuals were denied security clearances for exactly this reason (in addition to then-notions of moral turpitude), though eventually the ban was lifted in the Clinton administration (presumably as long as they were out of the closet, and thus not susceptible to having a secret revealed).

But the incident raises interesting questions about the standards for providing clearances, and how stringent we are in enforcing them. For instance, consider presidents.

Arguably, had they not been elected president, neither Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama would have been able to obtain even the most basic secret clearance, based on their life history.

In Bill Clinton’s case, even ignoring his trip to Moscow in his youth, he would have had a tough time getting one. CFR Title 32, Part 147, describes the adjudicative guidelines for allowing access to classified information. Section 147.6 relates to sexual behavior:

Conditions that could raise a security concern and may be disqualifying include:

  1. Sexual behavior of a criminal nature, whether or not the individual has been prosecuted;
  2. Compulsive or addictive sexual behavior when the person is unable to stop a pattern or self-destructive or high-risk behavior or that which is symptomatic of a personality disorder;
  3. Sexual behavior that causes an individual to be vulnerable to coercion, exploitation, or duress;
  4. Sexual behavior of a public nature and/or that which reflects lack of discretion or judgment.

Note that the Secret Service agents had their clearances pulled over items (3) and (4). And anyone who took even a cursory look at Bill Clinton’s history, let alone a deep background investigation, would know that there’s no way he would have gotten a clearance were he a normal citizen and not a crafty politician. Juanita Broaddrick and many others would have put paid to number one, Gennifer Flowers and Dolly Kyle Browning both testified to number two, and numbers three and four were amply demonstrated in the Lewinsky affair. What if Linda Tripp had sold the tapes to China or Iran instead of giving them to Ken Starr? That is a question that few seemed willing to ask at the time. In all of these affairs, the president, the most powerful person in the world, opened himself up to blackmail.

Section 147.10 would have been problematic for the former president as well:

Improper or illegal involvement with drugs raises questions regarding an individual’s willingness or ability to protect classified information. Drug abuse or dependence may impair social or occupational functioning, increasing the risk of an unauthorized disclosure of classified information.

…Conditions that could raise a security concern and may be disqualifying include:

(1) Any drug abuse;

(2) Illegal drug possession, including cultivation, processing, manufacture, purchase, sale, or distribution…

Even ignoring his “I didn’t inhale” defense during the campaign, there were many credible rumors of extensive use of cocaine by Bill Clinton, his half-brother Roger, and many Clinton associates (including White House employees) that again would probably have surfaced in a serious FBI check, and almost certainly resulted in a rejection of his clearance application.

The current president has a different problem. Ignoring his admitted drug use in his youth, which would not in itself be disqualifying, Section 147.3 discusses the issue of allegiance to the United States:

Conditions that could raise a security concern and may be disqualifying include: (1) Involvement in any act of sabotage, espionage, treason, terrorism, sedition, or other act whose aim is to overthrow the Government of the United States or alter the form of government by unconstitutional means;

(2) Association or sympathy with persons who are attempting to commit, or who are committing, any of the above acts…

Emphasis mine.

Barack Obama was a “red diaper baby” — both of his parents were communists, as was his mentor in his youth, Frank Marshall Davis. That in itself would not be disqualifying — one cannot choose one’s parents, after all, and youthful associations are often outgrown. What is troubling is that, as Obama admitted himself, he later “chose his friends carefully,” seeking out, among others, the Marxist professors in college. As Stanley Kurtz has amply documented, his entire life was one of deliberate radical associations, perhaps the most notorious being leftist terrorist Bill Ayers and his wife Bernadine Dohrn, who found the Manson butchery admirable, and the Maoist Mike Klonsky, not to mention Reverend Jeremiah “God damn America” Wright. No normal citizen applying for a clearance would get one with these kinds of associations. Of course, a person with such associations would not likely even apply for a job that required one, absent perhaps a desire to commit espionage.

The Founders probably never expected a president to have as much power as a modern president does — they actually circumscribed the duties quite strictly (e.g., only Congress could declare war).  Also, they envisioned the president being selected by the states, that the process would not be as dependent on individual voters as it has become today, and that the press would live up to its own constitutional responsibilities to act as some sort of filter. Thus they likely expected, perhaps naively, that the Electoral College would only select for the office actual gentlemen, bestowed with some minimal amount of probity, rather than scoundrels. Accordingly, the only constitutional qualifications they placed on presidential eligibility were being a natural-born citizen, at least thirty-five years of age, and able to fog a mirror. Given how much power has accreted to the office over the past two centuries, it is both amazing and ironic that an ability to get a basic security clearance is not a job requirement.

Several employees of the current president just lost their clearances (and likely their jobs) for behavior that was mild compared to that of one of his predecessors, who got one not by dint of a background check, but simply by electoral acclaim (much of which might not have occurred had the media itself done a proper background check in both cases, instead of covering up for them).

Perhaps it’s time to at least think about upgrading the Constitution with regard to this issue.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his weblog, Transterrestrial Musings.
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