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Edward Snowden came from a porous intelligence network in which public and private sectors blend with inadequate vetting for security clearances.
Thursday, June 27, 2013
Most Americans support government surveillance as a means to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks. Those surveillance programs have escalated in an effort to manage the gushers of information being generated across the globe in the form of phone records, Internet searches, photos, videos, documents and social media musings. The scale of the data now being gathered and sifted raises new questions about whether we are trading one set of risks for new and equally troubling threats to national security.
With top secret security clearances handed out to nearly 500,000 private sector workers, it’s astonishing that this dilemma has crystalized into a single name: Edward Snowden.
The 29-year-old computer systems analyst obtained his clearance while an employee with the Central Intelligence Agency, and kept it when he entered the private sector as an employee with the contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. He has admitted to releasing sensitive documents, saying he views government snooping as an infringement on civil liberties. Yet in avoiding extradition to the United States, he has sought help from countries that have less than stellar records in that regard as well as a desire to inflict damage on this country.
Snowden is a small cog in an enormous intelligence network in which top government officials glide seamlessly into the executive suites of corporate contractors, and low-level workers flit between public and private sectors with ease. The White House and congressional leaders must consider whether that fluid environment, lubricated by billion-dollar contracts, has diluted security clearance checks.
Of the 25,000 employees at Virginia-based Booz Allen, three-quarters have a government security clearance and half have top-secret clearance, according to the Associated Press. And that’s one company. All total, 1.1 million private sector workers have access to confidential government data, including 483,000 with the highest security clearance.
Defenders of the process note that a top-secret clearance investigation examines job, education, family, health, criminal and financial records over a decade, a window that may be irrelevant when large numbers of twenty-something computer techs are being trusted to troll through massive data troves.
Hiring 483,000 new government workers hardly seems a cure for the dilemma. Instead, national leaders must re-evaluate what information they need to ensure security, who should have access to that data, and how those people should be vetted. Safety in numbers alone is merely an illusion.
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