coronavirus

Intelligence community wrestles with a security threat: Coronavirus hardship

Senior national security officials are now reassuring lawmakers and the workforce.

Sen. Mark Warner

As government work slows and non-essential workers are sent home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, money is getting tighter — and many in the national security community are wondering whether their security clearances could be on the line as a result.

The U.S. national security apparatus has played a key role in the coronavirus response, monitoring how the disease has affected closed societies like China, Iran and North Korea while working to prevent the virus from spreading inside the nation’s intelligence and defense agencies themselves.

But the disruption of normal government operations as agencies implement “social distancing” policies could leave federal contractors and their employees without a paycheck, potentially jeopardizing their ability to hold or maintain a security clearance if they start to miss payments and incur debt. Clearance holders or applicants who have debt are considered more vulnerable to bribery or coercion, and financial irresponsibility is generally considered to be indicative of irresponsibility in other areas.

Senior national security officials are now reassuring lawmakers and the workforce, however, that clearance-holders won’t be penalized for financial difficulties incurred through no fault of their own.

In a March 13 letter to Senate Intelligence Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.), obtained by POLITICO, Dale Cabaniss — who subsequently resigned as director of the Office of Personnel Management for unrelated reasons — indicated that financial hardships imposed by efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus would generally not reflect negatively on clearance-holders and applicants.

Cabaniss cited federal guidelines that direct agencies to consider whether an applicant’s financial difficulties stemmed from circumstances beyond their control, and whether the applicant made a good-faith effort to meet their financial obligations anyway.

“While this guidance specifically does not apply to national security eligibility determinations, Federal personnel security policy separately considers the financial challenges some employees may experience due to no fault of their own,” Cabaniss wrote.

Warner had asked Cabaniss and acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell to pledge that security clearances would not be affected by the efforts to prevent the spread of coronavirus. ODNI didn’t reply, but National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director William Evanina issued a statement on the subject on Monday.

“During this time of unexpected challenges to our nation as a result of COVID-19, we are acutely aware of the potential for economic hardship on security clearance holders,” Evanina wrote. “It is imperative that we ensure trusted security clearance holders, or applicants, who may suffer financial hardship as a result of the virus, are not unduly penalized because of circumstances beyond their control.”

Evanina also cited federal guidelines that encourage a “whole person concept” approach when vetting personnel for clearances. Echoing Cabaniss, Evanina emphasized that a clearance-holder’s debt may be mitigated if the conditions that led to it were largely outside of their control and the person acted responsibly under the circumstances. Evanina added that he would “notify departments and agencies for their attention” to that guideline.

Mark Zaid, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer specializing in national security, said “any financial difficulties” can cause security clearance problems. But he said “there is always mitigation,” adding that clearance-holders were in a similar position during the 2008 financial crisis.

“So long as they're not acting irresponsibly, the coronavirus crisis will be taken into account,” Zaid said.