Because of all the Plame investigation developments, I am seeing a lot of questions about how people get security clearances and what they mean in terms of what you can know and disclose.  I had a very serious security clearance 15 years ago, and I may be able to provide some helpful information.
Two caveats:
(1) I haven’t had a clearance for 15 years, so things may have changed

(2) While I would be astonished if anything I once knew was still at all sensitive, it might be, and it was impressed upon us very seriously and firmly that we were never to disclose classified information with anyone, and the agreements we made never end.  Therefore, I am not going to provide any specifics that might possibly violate my agreements.

OK, so here is what I know.  I worked for a a defense contractor.  I started our with a Confidential clearance, which was available pretty much right away, upon answering a questionaire and about the equivalent of a credit check.

Next I got a Secret clearance.  This took a few months and an investigator asked around about me and interviewed me.

Later I got another clearance which required many months of investigation.  After this came through, my work was done in a vault.  This clearance did not have a name, but I was allowed to say that I had a clearance “requiring extended background investigation” or an EBI clearance.  I believe people use the term SCI clearance now.  I will call it an EBI clearance for the rest of the diary.

Once I had an EBI clearance, things got much more serious.  We had extensive training just in security matters, by a person who only handled security for our set of activities.  We were instructed to report anything at all fishy that happened to us – people from the past suddenly showing up, people scraping an acquaitance, any kind of strange encounter.  We were also supposed to report on each other – if someone else in the group was drinking to much or going into debt we were supposed to tell the security person.  I hated the idea of the latter – luckily nothing like that came up.

Within our group, there were little subclearances that you got only if you needed them.  The subclearances had names – I’ll pretend they were names of refrigerators.  So you could have an Amana clearance or a Maytag clearance.  You didn’t know the names of the clearances you didn’t have, but obviously there were others.  

When I’d get one of these little subclearances, there was a whole ritual we went through.  First I’d be briefed by the security person.  I got to read a briefing with the clearance names on it.  Then, I’d be introduced to other people with the same subclearance.  You could not talk about the project until you were introduced as cleared, in person, by a person you both knew was cleared.  So the security person would call in the other people I’d be working with and introduce us, telling each of us that the others had the Amana clearance.  This procedure was taken very seriously and no one skimped.  We knew that screwing around with classified information would land us in federal prison for a long time.  No joke.

So, how does this relate to Plame in general and Judith Miller in particular?  The main point that jumps out at me is that if we had to go through that kind of ritual before information on our little Amana project could be shared, I feel quite sure that the group who could know a NOC agent’s identity and cover corporation went through at least as stringent procedures, probably much more.  

There isn’t any question of “thinking” someone might be cleared to know something like that.  If there was any question you would not reveal the information until you personally confirmed the person’s clearance.  

To my knowledge, there isn’t any such thing as an overall  clearance that allows you to know anything you want to know (I guess the president might have such a  thing, but I know Senators don’t).  So if Scooter Libby, say, revealed the identity of a NOC agent to a reporter, the excuse that she had some kind of clearance when she was an imbedded reporter is no excuse at all.  Unless the White House security person introduced those two to each other as cleared for the Frog March project, he knew perfectly well that what he was doing was completely unexceptable and criminal.

So that is my experience and my thoughts on security clearances.  I hope it is useful to some folks.

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