Around the 4th week of Basic Training I was polishing my shoes when our “TI” (Training Instructor) yelled out “Wiesner! Get your ass over to building xxx… something about your security clearance.” Trembling, I headed out the door. Had they somehow figured out that I was gay? Was this the end of a short but quite exceptional 4-week career? On track to be a “Cryptologic Linguist,” I needed a Top Secret security clearance to eventually do the work I’d joined up to do. They’d told me that the investigation would take up to six months, allowing me to get through half of language school (Korean) before heading to the next phase of training that would require that clearance. Like NSA-contractor turned leaker-in-chief Edward Snowden and Naval Yard mass-murderer Aaron Alexis, as someone who would hold a national security clearance the government needed to make sure there were no skeletons in my closet (no pun intended) and that I was trustworthy to know key government secrets and have access to highly secure areas.
Unlike Edward Snowden and Aaron Alexis, the government actually did investigate me.
I marched down to that building as ordered back in 1979 and entered, stopped at a desk, saluted, and said “Airman Wiesner reporting as ordered.” A few minutes later I was ushered into an office and told to sit down across the desk from what appeared to be a civilian. He explained that he was working on my security clearance and was quite concerned at the “number of lies” they had found in my paperwork already.
“First, and least importantly, when we asked you if you had ever broken any bones, you said you’d broken your nose and your leg in a car accident, but you failed to mention your arm.” My arm? He slid an X-ray across the desk which showed a healed fracture in my right arm. I’d forgotten that when I was seven, I broke my arm falling off my bicycle. I chuckled and he got mad. “What are you laughing about?” I told him that I’d forgotten about having broken my arm, but I’d also forgotten about the joke I played on my doctor. After the doctor had put a cast on my arm I’d started to cry. The doctor asked what was wrong. I said “Doctor, when this cast comes off, will I be able to play the piano?” “Of course!” the doctor replied. “WOW! That’s great! I never played it before.” (My mother smacked the back of my head and we left.)
The investigator didn’t think it was funny either.
“OK, next lie. You said you’d never been convicted of any crime. True or not?” I said that was true. Then he slid a piece of paper across the desk and asked “How about this?” Once again, he had me dead to rights. This was a copy of a citation I’d gotten for smoking on the platform of the A Train. Paying the fine meant admitting that I’d committed a crime. Two strikes.
After admitting to that one he said he had one more… the most serious. Having never gotten much beyond gay “first base” in my early sexual life, I couldn’t imagine how they could have figured out that I was gay, but I thought I knew what was coming and was just about ready to cry…….
“We asked if you had ever been a member of any radical group and you said no. But here I see you were part of B’nai B’rith, and weren’t they throwing rocks at the UN recently…..” A wave of relief washed over me. I explained that the organization was B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, which brought together young Jewish boys and girls for social activities and general do-goodery. Nothing radical at all unless you count all the “first base” stuff that went on whenever the adults weren’t looking (mostly heterosexual first-base stuff of course).
“Well, we caught you in three lies… OK, really two, and we’ve only just started looking into you Airman Wiesner. Why don’t you save us all a lot of time and get the rest of it off your chest?” I looked him straight (as straight as a gay closet case could) in the eye and said “Sir, if you find anything else like this I’ll be happy to explain it, but I really have nothing else to tell you. May I go back to my flight now?” And I was dismissed. When I got back to my dorm my TI was waiting. “Well. Are you packing?” Nope, I told him everything was cool. He told me that half the time when folks came back from that building they packed up and left Basic Training. Not me.
During the following months, investigators visited my places of work, several of my friends, neighbors, and teachers at my school. They scared the heck out of my previous boss, Freddie, an Iranian-American. When the investigators walked into the restaurant where I’d worked and flashed their badges Freddie melted down, crying out “I am a patriotic American citizen. I have nothing to do with Iran!” (This was in the midst of the Iranian hostage crisis). They tried to calm him down, saying they were there to investigate me, showing Freddie my picture. “I’ve never seen this person before in my life! Why don’t you leave me alone… I am a good citizen!!!” One of the waitresses walked over and told Freddie to calm down, and yes, she told them, I had worked there for a few years. They questioned folks there about me and left, Freddie soaked with sweat. (Freddie used to smack me on the back of the head any time I was walking anywhere in the restaurant without something in my hands – saying you should ALWAYS be doing something. So, I wasn’t too sad about him sweating a little bit over me.)
I was actually impressed by how thorough the investigation was. Did they uncover all of my secrets? No. Did they find anything that made me unfit for the job? No. Was it worth the time and money to do it right? Yes.
Why am I sharing this story? In the last few months we’ve learned that our “corporations always do better than government” leaders have turned over the job of investigating folks who need security clearances to companies like USIS and many of those clearance “investigations” have been nothing more than a sham. Would Alexis have passed a real security clearance investigation? Would Snowden’s five-year update investigation on his existing clearance have sailed through? We don’t know. But we do know that in both cases there were clear warning signs that something was amiss, and even a simple few minutes of sitting across a desk from them and asking them and those who knew them a few questions might have kept Snowden from leaking tons of classified information and revealing that our government has been spying on all of our phone calls, web searches, and email (despite the Constitution protecting us from that) and might have kept Alexis from killing and maiming people in that navy yard.
Folks who have worked for companies like USIS are now reporting that they had little or no supervision, were pushed for volume instead of quality… and dozens of contractors have already been convicted of falsifying clearance reports, with one claiming to have interviewed someone who had been dead for ten years. Oops. Reuters reported on these convictions this week.
Determining if someone is fit to hold our nation’s most sensitive jobs, work that literally involves life and death, should not be farmed out this way. We know of hundreds of cases of falsified reports already and I’m guessing there are thousands. Not only should the so-called “investigators” be punished, but the companies that created environments demanding volume rather than quality, that utterly failed to properly supervise and quality-control those investigations, should also be penalized.
As Americans we have to think seriously about this whole “outsourcing” thing. Sometimes, in fact quite often, dedicated professionals working for the government can and will do a fantastic job, because they love their work, love their country, and feel a deep sense of responsibility for what they do. The part-time, overworked, unsupervised contractors working for companies like USIS… maybe not so much. In fact, at least one contractor who did take the work very seriously ended up quitting when she felt that she was doing more harm than good working for USIS. Contractors are people too, and I’m sure many if not most want to do a good job but when the companies for whom they work don’t have the nation’s best interests in mind, but are focused on their bottom line… we know what happens.
Just for fun, and in closing, I decided to do a little investigating on my own, trying to see if USIS and companies like Blackwater, another abject failure of outsourcing, had anything in common. It turns out that the Bush Administration hired USIS to investigate Blackwater for crimes against Iraqis during the Iraq war. Fox, meet hen-house.
Now it is your turn.
Craig Wiesner served in the United States Air Force Electronic Security Command and as a language instructor at the Defense Language Institute from 1979-1987. Today he and his husband run Reach And Teach, a peace and social justice learning company with a shop in San Mateo California and online at ReachAndTeach.com. Reach And Teach also manages Tikkun’s web operations.