How A GED-Holder Managed To Get 'Top Secret' Government Clearance


In this handout photo provided by The Guardian, Edward Snowden speaks during an interview in Hong Kong. Snowden, a 29-year-old former technical assistant for the CIA, revealed details of top-secret surveillance conducted by the United States' National Security Agency regarding telecom data.


The Guardian

One frequent question we're hearing about Edward Snowden's NSA leaks: how did this GED-holder get access to such a slew of classified information?

Snowden had "top-secret" security clearance, which, somewhat stunningly, is something that more than 1.4 million people have, according to a 2012 report from the office of the Director of National Intelligence.

According to the report, which scrutinized the approval of security clearances, more than 483,000 government contractors — like Snowden, who was a contractor for the NSA at Booz Allen Hamilton and at Dell — had "top secret" clearance as of last October. On top of that, another 582,000 have "confidential" or "secret" clearance.

So what's the process like to get one of those clearances?

As former Deputy Press Secretary Tony Fratto — who worked in the Bush administration — remembers it, the process to gain "top secret" clearance was like a rigorous background check. 

Although Fratto couldn't confirm if it was the same for private contractors, he underwent a process in which he was asked a slew of questions about his background. 

Everywhere he lived. Everywhere he worked. If he had any associates who were "foreign nationals." Any time spent overseas. Any "compromising information" that could be used to blackmail him."

"If I had known 15 years later I would have had to know who was my landlord in 1992 in DC," Fratto told Business Insider, " ... I don't have any idea why I would've kept that information."

Though the majority of the reaction has been shock at the number of private government contractors who have "top secret" access, Fratto argued that it's a necessary step for people handling sensitive information. The government reminds you of your legal "obligation," he said, to protect that information.

The amazing thing, Fratto said, is how rare it is that information such as the kind Snowden provided to The Guardian and Washington Post gets leaked. 

"People take 'top secret' security clearance very seriously. We can name the 20 people or so over the past 10 years who've leaked 'top secret' information," Fratto said. "Out of millions. ... The number of people who have divulged 'top secret' information is remarkably small."

The number of leaks is small, considering the fact that the status has been bestowed upon nearly 500,000 contractors at 1,931 private companies working on intelligence, counterterrorism, or homeland security in the United States. The NSA alone has contracts with 250 companies.

But Fratto pointed out that "top secret" clearance doesn't give a person access to every government secret — just information that is deemed to be on a "need-to-know" basis.

"The 'top secret' clearance is not a hall pass to go around rummaging for information. It absolutely puts a requirement and creates obligations for anybody who is looking at information," Fratto said. "Because of the 'top secret' clearance that they have, it places an obligation on them — a legal obligation — to treat that information responsibly."

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