We have received several responses to the post last week about the State Department's struggle to get security clearances for interns. The post was based on this National Journal story. Below are comments by readers identifying themselves as former interns. The consensus so far is that while the process isn't great, the clearance is important.
Matt Born, who served as an intern in Athens in 2007, responded by email, and said that he applied in May 2006, was accepted in September, had his clearance request submitted in October and received an interim clearance in January 2007:
I was a State intern a few years ago, and found the process to be opaque and difficult. I was offered and served as an intern in the political section in Athens, but I can vouch that the clearance process took a significant amount of time and only succeeded after they stopped pursuing top secret clearance and opted for interim secret. I'm on my third passport, and have spent maybe 10 percent of my life overseas, but due to the opacity of the process I don't know whether that had any impact.
Regarding whether interns handle classified material, I can say that it varied. There were times when I had to remind the FSOs that my clearance didn't go high enough to do what they were asking. There were three other interns during my stay in Athens, and some of them never saw a coversheet.
Commenter tbeau85 agreed that access is important:
As a former overseas DOS intern, I had access to classified cables for intern projects. No intern is "running" anything but your reaction does overlook the fact that in reality, "classified" material does not always include "sexy" news. It can be simply politically sensitive discussions--access to which is necessary if an intern is to get a full experience with DOS. Even not related to direct assignments, perusing the cables everyday was one of the best experiences as an intern. If interns could only read UC material, the whole experience would not be nearly the same.
alkenn93 says he/she also received an interim clearance one week ahead of time and that the process was "incredibly difficult":
Yes, it was extremely useful to be able to read classified cables and to attend sensitive meetings, and I wouldn't argue that interns shouldn't have to be granted secret clearance. Still, the difficulty of the process only serves to weed out eager students with relevant overseas experience, and is not proportionate to the actual amount of sensitive work we complete.
Another description of the access provided for cleared interns:
For better or worse, many areas and documents are marked as secret, and I agree that not clearing interns would rather limit their experiences. Cables, NIEs, and other documents that have classified versions offer a lot more insight into the whole process and are a neat perk of the job. Certainly, the process could be improved -- interns who applied nine months ahead of time should be told more than a week before the first day that they will, in fact, be permitted to show up for work -- but the difficulty in obtaining a clearance shouldn't detract from the value of that clearance.
Finally, commenter Guyver describes the frustration of never getting to start:
I was supposed to be a summer intern at State in 2006. I did not get my clearance till end of August, by which time summer was over. Funny thing, I was offered the internship because I have native-fluency in Arabic, but that’s what delayed my clearance, because I spent many years overseas in Arab countries.
Based on these comments, here are some further questions for discussion:
If State Department funding is increased, as has been indicated, will the problems lessen?
Are normal State hires having the same problems with clearance? Or is it easier because training and the first year doing consular leave plenty of time?
Update: A prospective Foreign Service Officer (FSO) wrote in to explain that the clearance process for hires is just as long. She asked to have her name withheld as her employment offer is still in the clearance phase.
As someone with a conditional offer of employment as an FSO, I must note that one cannot be accepted into training without passing the Final Suitability Review, which requires both the top-secret clearance and medical clearance to be completed before the actual hiring can take place. This process takes months to complete.
I asked what prospective FSOs do for the months while awaiting clearance:
I think some people do drop out, but the process to pass the FSO exams is so arduous, and people have invested so much time and energy already, that I think most don't. Most keep working wherever they've been working, or get short-term jobs, things like that.
On Sunday, the NYT's Peter Baker noted that only 304 of 543 appointed positions have been filled by the Obama administration after nearly a year. Though some of the hold-up has been from petty pork-barrel politics in the Senate, much more has resulted from the White House's incredibly tough preemptive vetting of its own appointees.
This vetting, which has already stopped Paul Farmer from heading USAID, has been defended by the White House, which argues it is ahead of the historical precedent. Why isn't that reassuring?
Even less reassuring is David Herbert's report in the National Journal that the State Department struggling to get security clearances for its interns in time for the periods they were supposed to be working.
One would-be intern, a graduate student at Tufts, came to Washington in May for a summer gig working on development issues. But he never got his security clearance and never started his internship. He's driving home to New York today after spending a frustrating summer spent calling his congressmen for help and wondering what happened.
"With the clearance process, as an applicant, you don't know anything," he said.
Not only are some going home without ever starting, the State Department actually takes this into account when choosing its number of interns. Don't we need to attract more talent into civil service, not scare it off with bureaucracy?
Even worse, the prospective interns most likely to run into delays are those who have spent time living or studying overseas, according to Daniel Hirsch, co-founder of Concerned Foreign Service Officers:
The Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which handles clearances, farms out most investigations to contractors, who are more efficient at processing applications than the bureau's agents, he said. But when an applicant has lived or traveled extensively overseas (as Buniewicz and others interviewed have), Diplomatic Security (DS) takes over. "Most DS agents consider [personnel security background investigations] to be beneath them, and security clearance investigations are a very low priority item for most overseas DS agents, so they probably sit on the back burner for a while," Hirsch said.
So it is harder to get an early jump on a career at the State Department if you already have international experience. No wonder Paul Farmer gave up on the bureaucratic route.
As a side note, why do interns require such significant security checks? The old joke about interns running everything notwithstanding, are they really handling that much classified material? Any State interns out there, let us know.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
A great crumb from the Washington Independent's Dave Weigel: nearly four in five Americans agreed, in a Fox News poll, that former President Bill Clinton's trip to North Korea -- during which he successfully lobbied for the release of jailed journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee -- will not encourage the kidnapping of more Americans.
One comment, though. Ling and Lee -- and John Yettaw, the American released from Myanmar over the weekend -- were not kidnapped. They were arrested and put in prison. Seems an important distinction to make.
Two weeks ago, Bill Clinton, the former U.S. president and husband of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, visited North Korea. He met with dictator Kim Jong-il and secured the release of two American journalists who had been held there for months.
This past weekend, Sen. Jim Webb traveled to Myanmar on a trip through Southeast Asia. Webb -- who likely knows more about the region than anyone else on the Hill -- has long criticized U.S. sanctions on Myanmar. He met with the head of the country's military junta and leading dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. And he secured the release of an American who had been jailed for breaking into Suu Kyi's compound, where she is on house arrest.
The Obama administration and U.S. news outlets have described these two missions as "private diplomacy." Webb and Clinton are both foreign-policy heavyweights outside the administration. Their stature and connections provided them with the latitude to make entreaties to these rogue, adversarial governments. They offered nothing in terms of aid or support or promises of policy-change -- they did not represent the Washington, of course. But they offered good press and a thread back to the capital -- which proved enough for the strongmen, Kim and Shwe.
Clearly, though, the word "private" is not totally accurate here. Both did it with the administration's nod and help.
The Washington Post wrote of Clinton's visit: "The trip came about only after weeks of back-channel conversations involving academics, congressional figures, and senior White House and State Department officials, said sources involved in the planning. North Korea rejected the administration's first choice for the trip -- former vice president Al Gore." The Wall Street Journal reported that the White House approved Webb's mission -- and he used a military plane for the trips.
All of which leaves me a bit queasy, though ultimately hopeful, about this rash of private diplomatic missions.
Part of me thinks the White House shouldn't be in the lame business of disavowing trips it clearly had a hand in making. Further, I worry the United States gave up an opportunity to publicly demand something out of Yangon. Clinton herself has said the United States would consider trading an easing of sanctions for the release of Suu Kyi. Webb may have made some headway towards that goal. But to hear Clinton or Obama comment on it would have doubtless brought a sense of urgency to the issue and shined a brighter spotlight on what the junta needs to change.
On the other hand, both the United States and the rogue governments got what they wanted. The U.S. gave up virtually nothing, got its citizens back, and won some good press for its diplomatic successes. Myanmar and North Korea got, for a moment, to look magnanimous and reasonable -- tempered by the stories about their human-rights abuses, and the fact that Washington did not send interlocutors with actual foreign policy power (Clinton herself, or a committee chair, say) to confer with them.
I suppose these carefully charted and subtle missions proved to work fine. To consider them isolated incidences or unqualified successes (or failures) would be the worst misjudgment -- foreign policy is always about carrots and sticks, and back and forth. This White House gets that really well.
Seven months ago, Hillary Rodham Clinton -- the powerful New York Senator, former First Lady, and runner-up in the brutally long Democratic primary competition -- became U.S. President Barack Obama's secretary of state. Since then, she's chastened North Korea, advocated on behalf of Burma, and rallied against Israeli settlement building. She's logged nearly 100,000 air miles. She's tirelessly pursued Obama's diplomatic agenda around the world.
And she's done it while fostering or demonstrating little friction with the White House she once hoped to occupy. Being secretary of state doesn't just require being a diplomat abroad. It requires being a diplomat in Washington. For, foreign policy is not and has never been the purview of State alone -- Clinton overlaps and dovetails and supports and creates policy with Obama, a spate of diplomatic envoys, the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense, the national security advisers, Vice President Joe Biden, et cetera. By all accounts, she's done well at that as well.
Not that you'd know it reading the paper. Too often, coverage of Clinton neglects the fact that the secretary of state has never been the sole creator of U.S. foreign policy. It also, far too often, focuses hyper-intently on the perceived narrative of how Clinton feels about her relationship with the White House -- rather than the actual relationship between Clinton and Obama or how she's doing her job.
Here are some main offenders.
Two weeks ago, Tina Brown took to the pages of the Daily Beast to proclaim that "It's time for Barack Obama to let Hillary Clinton take off her burqa." The article -- which makes a decent argument that Clinton's love of policy nitty-gritty means she's happy to play a supporting role -- is suffused with the speculative, the hypersensitive, and the hyperpersonal. It digresses into Clinton's relationship with her husband. And it seems shocked -- shocked! -- that Clinton might not mind being a good soldier in such a well-liked and well-run administration.
Other offenders come from less-opinionated sources.
On May 1, the New York Times' diplomatic correspondent Mark Landler published a profile of Hillary-in-situ, with the headline "Her Rival Now Her Boss, Clinton Settles Into New Role." The piece covered the secretary's tiring schedule and her jockeying for position amid other top foreign-policy thinkers in the administration.
But it also included a lot of strange diversions into Clinton's relationship with her husband and her family -- "Sad Hillary" anecdotes, as I like to call them. Take, for instance, this tart assessment of the way Clinton communicates her daughter, Chelsea: "[She] exchanges e-mail messages with her daughter, Chelsea, on her BlackBerry, which she is not allowed to use, for security reasons, at work."
Even worse was an April 1 story by the same author, about Clinton's participation at the G-20 meetings in London. Here's the lede:
For Hillary Rodham Clinton, arriving here on Tuesday night from The Hague was a lesson in the difference between being a supremely important person and just a very important one.
Mrs. Clinton's government plane was put into a holding pattern in the skies over Stansted Airport because air traffic had been backed up by Air Force One and other planes carrying world leaders to the economic summit meeting here. Once on the ground, her blue-and-white Boeing 757 taxied past President Obama's much larger 747, parking at a respectful distance.
Does the NYT honestly think anyone's surprised that the President's plane gets to go first? And do they honestly believe that it taught Hillary Clinton a lesson? I don't think so. The piece concludes with an anecdote about how Clinton brought a bunch of the tulip varietal named for her back to her hotel room -- whereas Obama got to stay in some sort of plush castle.
Of course, Clinton's a fascinating personal figure. And of course her relationship with the White House remains a topic major news outlets need to cover. This weekend, for instance, Clinton strayed far from the White House's line on Iran, taking a much harder position than other proxies on the issue of enrichment while speaking with Meet the Press.
I look forward to reading stories on that. But such strained coverage on the made-up narrative of Clinton's dislike of the parameters of her current job? No, thank you.
Photo: Flickr user sskennel
In 2007, Kiriakou famously went on television to describe waterboarding, and discussed the single incidence in which Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded. After just 30 or 35 seconds, Kiriakou said, Zubaydah started singing and never needed to be tortured again.
But Kiriakou wasn't there for the waterboarding -- he was half a world away, in Langley -- and Zubaydah was waterboarded more than 80 times. The New York Times first noted the difference in the two stories.
I remember wondering at the time why Kirkiakou was allowed to come forward and talk about interrogations so sensitive the Bush administration created a special "top secret" designation for them. Why didn't the CIA revoke his pension and prosecute him for leaking?
The New York Times writes:
The C.I.A., which considered legal action against Mr. Kiriakou for divulging classified information, said last week that he "was not - and is not - authorized to speak on behalf of the CIA."
Paul Gimigliano, a C.I.A. spokesman, said: "This agency did not publicly disclose the frequency with which the waterboard was used, noting only that it was employed with three detainees. If reporters got that wrong, they weren't misled from here."
The CIA didn't do much to repudiate or discredit Kiriakou at the time, despite the fact that he broke a central covenant of his profession. Here's the CIA response, as reported by ABC News:
The former CIA intelligence official who went public on ABC News about the agency's use of waterboarding in interrogations, John Kiriakou, apparently will not be the subject of a Justice Department investigation, even though some CIA officials believe he revealed classified information about the use of waterboarding.
"They were furious at the CIA this morning, but cooler heads have apparently prevailed for the time being," a senior Justice Department official told the Blotter on ABCNews.com.
Gen. Michael Hayden, the CIA director, did sent out a classified memo this morning warning all employees "of the importance of protecting classified information," a CIA spokesperson told ABCNews.com.
Had they wanted to silence or punish him, surely they could have. It all seems a bit strange to me, and leads to one obvious possibility: John Kiriakou -- telegenic and well-spoken John Kiriakou, who never went to jail for blasting state secrets on television -- was told the story to tell and released onto an unsuspecting public. It's an impression the CIA will have difficulty dulling now.
For, Kirkiakou went on to act as a "paid consultant" for ABC news after the interview, Laura reports.
I asked Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch and a former Clinton administration official, to work through some of the foreign policy implications of the newly released torture memos with me.
We discussed whether the Bush administration memos encouraged other countries to torture, or led to any global uptick in "enhanced interrogation" practices. "I've always tried to be careful not to suggest that countries like Egypt or China or Uzbekistan would be torturing more because the United States was setting a bad example. Obviously, dictatorships torture for their own reasons, and they didn't need [former U.S. President] George W. Bush to show them how," he says.
But, the Bush administration torture of detainees and disavowal of the Geneva Conventions did preclude diplomacy on many occasions, Malinowski says. He testified before the Helsinki Commission in 2007 to make the point:
A couple of years ago, Human Rights Watch was meeting with the Prime Minister of Egypt, and we raised a case in which hundreds of prisoners rounded up after a terrorist bombing were tortured by Egyptian security forces. The Prime Minister didn't deny the charge. He answered, "We're just doing what the United States does." We've had Guantanamo and the administration's interrogation policies thrown back in our face in meetings with officials from many other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan and Lebanon. U.S. diplomats have told us they face the same problem. A U.S. ambassador to a leading Middle Eastern country, for example, has told us that he can no longer raise the issue of torture in that country as a result.
Malinowski says the detainee abuse made it difficult for the White House to negotiate any human rights provisions or issues, broadly. "Issues beyond torture were effected, because it enabled authoritarian governments to say, ‘You have no right to lecture us,'" he says. "They were delighted to tweak the United States on it."
The biggest offender? Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who Malinowski described as a "world champion" of chiding the United States via its own policies.
Nevertheless, Malinowski thinks that, despite the horrible details revealed by the Bush administration and International Committee of the Red Cross memos, ultimately their release is a very good thing for the Obama administration.
[Obama] can go to a country like Turkey or Indonesia or Egypt and say, "Look, I know what it's like to face real security threats, and we as Americans understand the temptation to give up some of our liberties and principles to defend ourselves against those threats. But what we've learned the hard way in the last eight years is that those liberties and principles actually make us stronger. You could learn from our example."
That's a much more effective way of arguing the point than going to those same countries and saying, look at our perfect system and our glorious morality, and maybe someday you can be as good as we are. So I think if he uses the experience as a cautionary tale, it will actually make our country a more effective and compelling champion of human rights around the world, ironically.
Here's to hoping so.
Photo: Entrance to Bagram Air Base by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
It's been a tense day for constitutional lawyers, national security reporters, and foreign policy wonks. Why? This afternoon, the Obama administration intends to release memos relating to the controversial "enhanced interrogation" policies of CIA officers in overseas prisons.
There have been careful negotiations between the CIA, Justice Department, and White House over the contents of the release, and it seems the officers involved have been granted immunity from prosecution as a result.
The full set of documents should be released here sometime within the hour.
Update: The only redactions are the officers' names.
Update: Read the memos here.
Don Kraus at the Global Solutions Blog and Mark Leon Goldberg at U.N. Dispatch report that Rep. Nita Lowey and Sen. Patrick Leahy managed to cut the Nethercutt Amendment out of the omnibus appropriations bill that Congress passed this week.
The Nethercutt Amendment -- named for former Rep. George Nethercutt and bundled in a 2004 appropriations bill -- cut economic support funds to nations that ratified the International Criminal Court without signing a Bilateral Immunity Agreement with the Bush administration.
Global Solutions says the law affected funding to more than 20 countries, including:
Latin American allies in the war on drugs, including Peru, Ecuador, Paraguay, Brazil, Venezuela, Costa Rica, and Uruguay.
The Balkan countries of Croatia and Serbia and Montenegro, which rely on U.S. military assistance to maintain stability and reform their armies.
Caribbean countries, whose hurricane disaster assistance is tied to the affected programs: Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
African allies with which the U.S. partners to help maintain regional security, including South Africa, Kenya, Mali and Tanzania.
Photo: Paul Vreeker/AFP/Getty Images
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