FSGB Case: Revocation of Top Secret Security Clearance and Separation

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Via FSGB Case No. 2020-002:

Held – The Grievance Board found that because the security clearance of the charged employee had been revoked after final agency review, the Department of State established that the proposed separation of the charged employee was for such cause as will promote the efficiency of the Foreign Service.

Case Summary The charged employee, a Diplomatic Security Special Agent, was notified that his Top Secret security clearance was suspended for failure to cooperate in certain medical assessments. The charged employee’s clearance subsequently was revoked. The charged employee appealed the revocation to the Department’s Security Appeals Panel, which sustained the revocation after consideration of the written submissions of both the charged employee and the Department. Because a Top Secret security clearance is a condition of employment for the charged employee and because the revocation of his clearance was final, the Department proposed to separate the employee for cause. After a hearing on the issue, the Board concluded that the Department had established cause for the separation and evidence that the separation would promote the efficiency of the Service.

Background

On July 11, 2014, the Director of the Office of Personnel Security and Suitability, Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS/SI/PSS), notified the charged employee, via memorandum that his “continued access to classified information was not clearly consistent with the interests of national security.”1 Accordingly, his Top Secret security clearance was suspended pending the outcome of “ongoing Department medical review.” 2 The charged employee held a position as an FS-02 DS Special Agent who required a Top Secret security clearance to perform his duties.

On October 7, 2015, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Domestic Operations notified the charged employee by letter that his Top Secret security clearance was revoked. The employee was afforded 30 days to request a review of this decision. It appears that a review was requested because on March 13, 2019, the Principal Deputy Legal Adviser, on behalf of the Security Appeals Panel (Panel) notified the employee by letter that the Panel voted to sustain the decision of DS to revoke his Top Secret security clearance. This letter noted that the Panel had convened on February 19, 2019; that the charged employee had appeared and answered questions; and that the Panel took into account his responses, as well as written materials provided by the employee, his private counsel, DS.3

On August 20, 2019, the Director General notified the charged employee that the Department proposed to separate him for cause, under Section 610 of the FSA as amended, in order to promote the efficiency of the Service. The separation proposal stated that all Foreign Service positions require a Top Secret security clearance because all FS positions are “critical sensitive.” 4 Thus, because his security clearance had been revoked after all final reviews, the charged employee could no longer maintain a condition of his employment.

The charged employee responded by email on September 3, 2019 to the proposed letter of separation, stating, “Separating me from the Department does not seem right to me.” 5 The charged employee offered no other written or oral response to explain, rebut, or mitigate the separation proposal.

On January 6, 2020, the Department submitted the transmittal containing the separation proposal to the FSGB. On February 25, 2020, the Board conducted a pre-hearing conference (PHC) with the parties by telephone, during which the Board, the charged employee and the Department agreed upon procedural ground rules and a schedule of events prior to the hearing.6

The Department indicated at the PHC that beyond the documents submitted with the Department’s separation file in this case, the agency did not intend to submit any other exhibits or call any witnesses at the hearing. The charged employee indicated that he did not wish to call any witnesses or submit any documentation to the Board at the hearing. Thereafter, the parties reached an agreement on joint stipulations of fact to be presented at the hearing.7

On April 2, 2020, a hearing was convened by the Board on the separation proposal. The hearing was held telephonically, due to the CoVid 19 coronavirus pandemic, the President’s order to maximize the use of telework and the Governor of Virginia’s “stay at home” emergency order. At the start of the hearing, the Board advised the parties that it had determined that there was no need for a video-conferenced hearing because the parties had advised that they intended to offer no witness testimony. Neither the charged employee nor the Department objected to the use of a telephonic hearing process.

The Board found that a Top Secret security clearance is required for the employee’s position; therefore, the agency established that the charged employee failed to maintain a mandatory condition of employment. The Board concluded that the Department established cause for the separation on a single charge of Failure to Maintain a Condition of Employment and that separation of the charged employee will promote the efficiency of the Foreign Service.

3 According to the Principal Deputy Legal Adviser’s letter, “the Panel focused in particular on concerns relating to guideline I (‘Psychological Condition’). … [T]he Panel took note of the fact that [the charged employee] did not appear at the medical evaluation which [he] had agreed to undergo, [his] email of November 2, 2018, and [his] unwillingness during [his] appearance before the Panel to offer information that it could use to determine whether DS’s concerns had been mitigated.” The record does not reveal any additional information about the predicate for the security clearance suspension or revocation.

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More Email Fallout and Security Clearance: @StateDept Says, “We’ll do it by the FAM.”

Posted: 4:22 am ET
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The State Department has reportedly resumed its internal review related to the Clinton emails.  The spox refused to confirm “what specific materials” the State Department will consider or “what individuals may or may not be evaluated for possible employment or security clearance-related actions.” Note that this internal review is conducted by Diplomatic Security; perhaps due to public interest the results of the review may be released to the public, but that is not a given.

Via DPB dated July 15, 2016

We have additional information to provide about our internal review process. I will not be speaking about any specific case, nor will I be engaging in hypotheticals. As is standard, to protect the integrity of our work we cannot discuss the details of an ongoing review. Just as the FBI did not comment on its investigation, while it is ongoing we will not comment on our review.

That means I cannot confirm for you what specific materials we will consider or what individuals may or may not be evaluated for possible employment or security clearance-related actions. Our policy – so yes, it is —

QUESTION: What can you tell us?

MS TRUDEAU: It is moving. Yes, well, let’s go and I’ll give you exactly what we can.

Our policy is to assess each case on its own merits while taking into account all relative – relevant facts and circumstances. Furthermore, the department cannot comment on the status of any particular individual’s security clearance. Our goal is to complete this process thoroughly and expeditiously, but we will not put arbitrary deadlines on our work.

There is a significant amount of information about our process available to the public online. You’ll like this: For instance, I would point you to our Foreign Affairs Manual, specifically 12 FAM 500 and 230 sections. I’ll do my best to outline this process from the podium, but I cannot speak to every provision in the FAM. I also cannot speak to how the process will be applied to account for any specific circumstances.

In summary – and I still have a lot more to go, so stay with me – Diplomatic Security is responsible for evaluating security incidents and then reviewing them as appropriate for potential security clearance-related actions. Diplomatic Security is also responsible for referring certain incidents to our Bureau of Human Resources for potential employment actions. No matter the individual or conduct involved, the department conducts the review process in a professional, impartial, and fair manner that takes into account all relevant circumstances.

Multiple components within Diplomatic Security are involved in the process, supervised and overseen by the assistant secretary for Diplomatic Security. One component of Diplomatic Security conducts an initial assessment of security incidents and, when appropriate, issues security infractions or security violations. Security clearance reviews are conducted by a different DS component. As with Director Comey at the FBI and Attorney General Lynch at DOJ, it’s standard for our chief law enforcement officer, the assistant secretary for Diplomatic Security, to be involved with high-profile or complex matters, which is certainly the case here.

Assistant Secretary Greg Starr is the person in Diplomatic Security who is ultimately responsible for affirming or rejecting recommendations to revoke an individual’s security clearance. A decision to revoke a security clearance may be appealed to the Security Appeals Panel. Similarly, our human resource process can include multiple components, but ultimately Director General Arnold Chacon is responsible for taking disciplinary actions on an employee. That’s our process.

I know there’s questions about potential outcomes of the process. The short answer is that outcomes for any individual depend on their specific circumstances taking into account all of the relevant facts. This is what our review will determine. Current employees can face a range of employment discipline including reprimand, suspension, and termination. People with security clearances, including former employees, could have those clearances suspended and/or revoked.

We also maintain a security file on all personnel involved in security incidents. For individuals who no longer have a security clearance, the incident information is kept in their security file so it can be considered if they apply for a security clearance in the future. When evaluating whether a person remains eligible for access to classified information, the department follows the whole person approach based on the government-wide adjudication guidelines. Our Foreign Affairs Manual states that, quote, “Each case will be judged on its own merits,” end quote, based on specific, quote, “facts and circumstances,” end quote. Under the guidelines we can look at the severity of an incident, whether the person is a repeat offender, whether the individual is amenable to training or reform, and whether the incident was a technical violation or resulted in actual harm to national security.

As we have said, now that the FBI and DOJ have concluded their investigation, the department intends to conduct a review of Secretary Clinton’s emails according to our well established Security Incident Program. We’re preparing to conduct our review.

QUESTION: Okay.

MS TRUDEAU: So there’s a lot. Thank you for your patience.

QUESTION: Well, I’ve got to digest quite a few.

MS TRUDEAU: Yeah.

QUESTION: But be with me on this, because I’m trying to get my head around it.

MS TRUDEAU: Yeah.

QUESTION: So the question here is: Has the FBI handed over – and how many emails has the FBI handed over to be reviewed?

MS TRUDEAU: At this stage, we have not received any from the FBI.

QUESTION: Have they indicated to you when that’s going to be?

MS TRUDEAU: I have no timeline on that, but we have not received them.

QUESTION: And then on DS, are they the – do they have the final word? Would – does Greg Starr have the – Assistant Secretary Greg Starr have the final word on this? Or can Secretary Kerry or even the President overturn those decisions or have the final say?

MS TRUDEAU: So I said there is – as I mentioned, there is a significant amount of information about our process online. So for this particularly, look at section 230 and 500 of 12-FAM. The 500 section outlines the Security Incident Program, which is handled by the Program Applications Division of Diplomatic Security. The 230 section outlines the security clearance, which is administered by the Office of Personnel Security and Suitability, also within DS. Both components operate under the oversight and supervision of the assistant secretary for Diplomatic Security.

QUESTION: So when it comes to Diplomatic Security, is that withdrawn – as you’re investigating it, is that withdrawn at the end or is it withdrawn at the beginning? Is it frozen? How does that work?

MS TRUDEAU: So the process you’re talking about – and forgive me for the FAM references, but it’s really detailed and really specific. So if people are looking for the details on this, refer to 12-FAM 233.4. I’m going to refer you there. As a general matter, the suspension of a security clearance is available if Diplomatic Security determines it’s appropriate while they carry out their review. However, if you read the FAM, you’ll see it’s not an automatic process; whether or not to suspend a person’s clearance depends on the circumstances. It’s a judgment of the trained professionals in DS.

QUESTION: And then how unusual is it that Diplomatic Security – or how unusual is it that this process – that you use this process?

MS TRUDEAU: So I’m not – it’s – I’m not going to talk sort of precedent, but I would say that there is offices within Diplomatic Security, and this is their mandate. All of us within the department – and we’ve spoken about this; Secretary Kerry has spoken about this – have the obligation to safeguard and correctly handle information.

QUESTION: So would this also include former employees? It includes former employees, right?

MS TRUDEAU: As I’ve said.

QUESTION: As you said. Does it include employees that are not part of the State Department but might also be involved in this – in the emails?

MS TRUDEAU: Okay, I’m not going to speak, as I mentioned, to the specifics of any individual, any case. I just want to outline this broadly, bring you guys up to date on it, and give you the references, because it is such a technical and granular matter.

QUESTION: Yeah. But I mean, as you know, Secretary Kerry – Secretary Clinton has been involved in this, and a lot of people are wondering how this could affect her. So would you be able to make some kind of outcome whether it includes her or whether it includes somebody in a lower position? Is everybody going to be looked at equally?

MS TRUDEAU: Again, I just can’t speak to the specifics on who will be reviewed, what incidents will be reviewed. But I will say the review is taking place.

QUESTION: And you can’t tell us when this review is going to start?

MS TRUDEAU: No. No, they – the idea of projecting a timeline on this – we’ll say they’re committed to a fair, impartial, and absolutely rigorous process.

QUESTION: And when you say – just one more question.

MS TRUDEAU: Sure.

QUESTION: When the FBI says that it’s looking at thousands of withheld emails, that it’s going to give State thousands, you don’t know if it’s going to be thousands or if it’s going to be hundreds? You have no idea?

MS TRUDEAU: I couldn’t speak to the FBI documents.
[…]
QUESTION: Is Pat Kennedy going to be involved in any of this?

MS TRUDEAU: Okay, so thanks for the question.

QUESTION: I know there’s been some questions about that.

MS TRUDEAU: Yeah. So first, as we’ve said many times, Under Secretary Kennedy did not approve nor was he aware of the extent to which Secretary Clinton was using personal emails. No matter the individual or the conduct involved, the department will conduct and does conduct the security clearance process review in a professional, impartial, and fair manner that takes into account all relevant circumstances.

According to our Foreign Affairs Manual, the Under Secretary for Management Pat Kennedy becomes involved in a security clearance revocation in the event of an appeal. He is a member of a three-person panel that’s at the very end of our process. I’m not going to speculate that it’ll even get that far.

QUESTION: And you said Secretary Kerry is not going to be involved?

MS TRUDEAU: So Secretary Kerry will be informed of the details, the results of the review, after its completion. Again, I’m not going to speculate on outcomes or hypotheticals. As we’ve said many times from this podium, he wants this review done by the book, and the book requires Diplomatic Security lead and conduct this review.

QUESTION: And then just one more small one.

MS TRUDEAU: Sure.

QUESTION: Will the – so FAM is pretty clear that supervisors (inaudible) be held responsible for their subordinates’ actions. How are you going to deal with this? Is this —

MS TRUDEAU: That is – that’s something I think I’m not going to speculate on that. I’m not going – I can’t speak to the details of that. I can’t speak to the review. And honestly, I’m not going to get into hypotheticals on the review.

QUESTION: Yeah. And then are you going to deal it as one big infraction, or are you going to look at several —

MS TRUDEAU: Again —

QUESTION: You don’t know?

MS TRUDEAU: I can’t speak to how they’ll do it – specific incident, individuals. It’s just the review is happening.

QUESTION: Will they —

MS TRUDEAU: We’ll do it by the FAM.

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