Robert Bales, the U.S. Army staff sergeant accused of murdering 17 Afghan civilians, was given a security clearance even though he’d had previous financial troubles and scrapes with the law.
Bales, 38, who served in Iraq three times before being sent to Afghanistan, held a secret-level clearance, according to two U.S. military officials who had access to his records and asked not to be named because the details have not been made public.
While secret is a common, mid-level clearance, it may have given Bales access to classified material that according to the government’s definition, could cause “serious damage” to national security if disclosed to unauthorized sources. Two other military officials familiar with the clearance program, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said they were troubled that Bales held a clearance with a record that could expose him to blackmail or bribery.
About 90 percent of active-duty military personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq have a security clearance, according to Evan Lesser, managing director of Clearancejobs.com, a website that matches U.S. clearance-holders with prospective employers.
“It’s not abnormal that Mr. Bales had a security clearance,” said Lesser, whose website is part of New York-based Dice Holdings Inc. “Military personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq and most of the Middle East are probably going to have some level of security clearance.”
More than 2 million government workers, including military personnel, held confidential or secret security clearances as of October 2010, according to a report from the U.S. Director of National Intelligence. The Defense Department issues more than 80 percent of all clearances, according to information posted on clearancejobs.com.
Bales, who was charged yesterday with 17 counts of premeditated murder, enlisted in the Army on Nov. 8, 2001. Court records show he was arrested in 2002 at a hotel in Tacoma, Washington, in an investigation of an assault on a woman. Bales pleaded not guilty and underwent 20 hours of anger management counseling, and the charge was dismissed.
Bales was involved in a drunken altercation with a woman and her boyfriend in 2008 after making comments about her, a police report and the woman involved say. Bales wasn’t charged in the incident outside a bowling alley in Tacoma, Washington, near the Joint Base Lewis-McChord where he was stationed, according to police and court records.
Before he joined the military, Bales swindled an Ohio couple of more than $600,000 when he served as their stockbroker, according to records of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, an industry group. He was ordered in 2003 to pay more than $1.3 million in damages to the couple.
‘Need to Know’
The charges against Bales in the Afghanistan shootings don’t accuse him of misusing his clearance. John Henry Browne, a Seattle lawyer for Bales in the Afghan case, didn’t immediately reply to an e-mail seeking comment.
It’s unclear when Bales received his secret clearance or whether he held a higher-level top secret clearance for his job. There are three levels of security clearances: confidential, secret and top secret. The most closely held secrets are classified top secret and controlled on a “need to know” basis as what’s called sensitive compartmented information.
Bales may have failed to report some of his financial and legal troubles when applying for a clearance, the officials famiiar with the clearance program said. Providing false information on an application for a security clearance is a violation of both the U.S. criminal law and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Screeners reviewing Bales’s application may have ignored blots on the soldier’s record or failed to check his information thoroughly, the officials said. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq created an enormous backlog in the clearance system, so some applications have gotten less scrutiny than they once did, especially at the secret level, one of the officials said.
More than 512,000 government employees and contractors were approved for confidential or secret clearances in fiscal 2010, according to the report from the Director of National Intelligence.
“There is a large number of cleared personnel,” Steven Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said in an interview. “Just keeping tabs on that is an enormous task. Every one of them not only needs to go through initial review, but needs to go through periodic review.”
Radios and weapons systems often contain classified technology, so even low-ranking soldiers have to be cleared to use them, and enlisted personnel often get a secret clearance as they gain seniority, an Army reservist with a secret clearance said in an interview. Almost every soldier deployed overseas has a clearance, said the soldier, who spoke on condition he not be named because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
Because Bales was working with members of the Army’s Special Forces in Afghanistan, he may have had access to sophisticated equipment, such as advanced night vision gear and sensors used to detect people and improvised explosive devices, said the officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Although secret clearances are now considered routine, the release of information classified as secret can still cause significant damage if given to the wrong people, said one official, citing the case of Army Private First Class Bradley Manning, who’s on trial for passing State Department cables and other secret material to the Wikileaks website.
Applicants for secret clearances undergo “a fairly extensive background check,” Lesser said in an e-mail. Such clearances must be reviewed every 10 years, he said.
The most common investigation for a secret clearance includes a national agency check combined with a credit search and checks with local law enforcement agencies where the applicant has lived, worked or studied, according to Lesser. The investigation includes inquiries to current and past employers, schools and references and covers the preceding five years.
In 2009, Bales and his wife, Karilyn, defaulted on a mortgage for one of their two properties in Washington state, and they recently attempted to sell the other for less than what they owe on it. At one point, the couple owed more than $500,000 on the two homes.
Mortgage problems aren’t necessarily a red flag for security clearances, Lesser said. Financial considerations boil down to whether the person’s financial troubles are due to their own actions, such as gambling, risky business decisions and spending sprees beyond the person’s means, Lesser said.
The military “pays close attention to debt and other financial issues when it comes to screening applicants for security clearance to handle sensitive information,” Lieutenant Colonel James Gregory, a Defense Department spokesman, said in an e-mail. “A person with big debts is more likely to accept money in exchange for revealing secrets. So that’s why financial things are, if not the biggest, one of the biggest reasons that a clearance would not be granted or be revoked.”
Even so, the military takes a “whole person” approach when granting a clearance, weighing an individual’s past and present behavior, considering favorable as well as unfavorable conduct, Gregory said. “The military also considers the circumstances and recency of the conduct, as well as the presence of rehabilitation or positive behavioral changes,” he said.