U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales held a security clearance at the time he’s accused of murdering 17 Afghan civilians, and that’s prompted officials and analysts to ask if the war on terror has overwhelmed the government’s procedures for granting access to its secrets.
Bales, 38, was issued and retained a mid-level secret clearance even though he’d had financial troubles and scrapes with the law before and after he entered the service, according to two U.S. military officials with access to his records. Both asked not to be named because the details haven’t been made public. He still had his clearance at the moment he allegedly left the gate of the combat outpost where he was stationed, walked to nearby villages, and shot the 17 men, women, and children.
“It’s not abnormal that Mr. Bales had a security clearance,” said Evan Lesser, managing director of Clearancejobs.com, a website that matches U.S. clearance holders with prospective employers. “Military personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq and most of the Middle East are probably going to have some level of security clearance.”
About 90 percent of active-duty military personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq have security clearances, according to Lesser.
Sept. 11 Increase
The U.S. boosted the number of government employees and contractors to combat the new terror threats after the September 11 attacks, said Lesser, whose website is part of New York-based Dice Holdings Inc.
The increase in the number of security clearances was a byproduct of a “vast growth of the national security apparatus,” said Steven Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.
“Military and intelligence spending increased enormously over the past decade, as did the intensity of operational activities,” Aftergood said in an e-mail.
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.
More than 512,000 government employees and contractors were approved for confidential or secret clearances in fiscal 2010 alone, according to the report.
Security Clearance Levels
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 also controlled on a “need to know” basis as what’s called sensitive compartmented information.
Secret is a common, mid-level clearance, yet it may have given Bales access to classified material that according to the government’s definition, could cause “serious damage.”
While secret clearances have become routine, the release of information classified as secret can still cause significant damage if given to the wrong people, said one U.S. military 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.
Sophisticated technology and increased special operations, as well as the growth of the national security establishment after the Sept. 11 attacks, have contributed to what one U.S. official described as clearance inflation.
Today’s radios and weapons systems often contain classified technology, so even low-ranking soldiers must be cleared to use them, and enlisted personnel often get secret clearances 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 isn’t authorized to speak publicly.
In addition, the Obama administration has increasingly relied on special operations forces as it withdraws more regular combat troops from Afghanistan. Those elite forces -- often augmented by soldiers such as Bales -- have some more highly classified weapons and technology than other U.S. soldiers, Marines, sailors and Air Force personnel, according to two U.S. officials. Both agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity because Bales’s case is still being investigated.
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 two officials.
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 reply to an e-mail seeking comment.
Even so, Bales’s case highlights two important issues, said the two U.S. officials, both of whom are familiar with the clearance program.
The more troubling one, in light of the charge that the killings allegedly were premeditated, is whether Bales’s superiors in Afghanistan overlooked signs of combat stress or other mental issues that should have prompted them to revoke his clearance and send him to be examined at a military medical facility, the officials said. Bales had served three combat tours in Iraq before being sent to Afghanistan.
Checking Bales’s History
The other question, the two officials said, is whether Bales’s clearance was issued without checking his answers to questions about his financial and legal histories, or else by ignoring difficulties that might have left him vulnerable to bribery or blackmail.
Bales may have failed to report some of his financial and legal troubles on his application for a clearance, the officials familiar with the security program said. Providing false information on such an application is a violation of both the U.S. criminal law and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
“There is a large number of cleared personnel,” Aftergood, with 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.”
Applicants for secret clearances undergo “a fairly extensive background check,” Lesser of Clearancejobs.com said in an e-mail. The 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.
Bales, who was charged March 23 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. He 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.
In addition, Bales had swindled an Ohio couple of more than $600,000 when he served as their stockbroker before he joined the military, according to records of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, an industry group. In 2003 -- after he enlisted -- he was ordered to pay more than $1.3 million in damages to the couple.
Bales had other financial problems. In 2009, he and his wife Karilyn defaulted on a mortgage on 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.