U.S. intelligence agencies are abusing rules on access to classified data to punish employees who upset security officials or who go against prevailing bureaucratic viewpoints, according to three officials who say they were unfairly forced out.
F. Michael Maloof, until recently a veteran Pentagon security official in the office of Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, said his security clearances were revoked based on false charges by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) that he failed to report contacts with a foreign national he met while working for the Pentagon in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. He later married the woman, who is now a U.S. government translator.
Mr. Maloof was notified by the Defense Department in 2001 that “information tends to show a security risk may exist that could cause potential vulnerability to coercion, exploitation or pressure due to foreign influence caused by close and continuing ties of affection and obligation.”
Mr. Maloof said the charges that he had had an intimate relationship with the Georgian woman at the time were “totally inaccurate.” He also said that, contrary to the charges, he reported his contacts to the DIA as part of an effort to develop ties to a senior Georgian official.
“There was no intimate relationship, contrary to what was stated,” he said. “I told them that, and they ignored it.”
Mr. Maloof said he did not begin dating the woman until years later.
According to Mr. Maloof, the loss of his top-secret clearances followed several Pentagon review boards and finally was formalized in 2003, after details of his personnel security file were disclosed to several newspapers as part of what he said was a campaign to discredit him in the press.
The suspension coincided with Mr. Maloof’s work on a special-intelligence analysis that showed previously undisclosed links between Sunni and Shia extremists, including al Qaeda’s ties to Saddam Hussein’s government.
His analysis was bitterly opposed by officials in the CIA and DIA, who disagreed with its findings.
According to Mr. Maloof, one DIA analyst told him, “We don’t like people like you looking over our shoulders.”
“It was retaliation for the report I was working on,” Mr. Maloof said of the clearance revocation.
Pentagon spokesmen declined to comment, citing a policy of not discussing personnel issues.
National Security Agency (NSA) official Russ Tice also had his top-secret clearance suspended after he reported suspicions that a female co-worker showed signs of being a Chinese spy.
Mr. Tice will face an NSA appeal board later this month, and he expects the agency to dismiss him. The supersecret agency conducts electronic eavesdropping and code-breaking.
Another NSA official, a 17-year specialist involved in highly classified work, was punished and forced to retire after his clearances were suspended based on an “inconclusive” polygraph test indicating he might be a spy and saboteur.
The NSA wouldn’t comment on either case.
Without access to classified information, all three officials could not continue in their jobs.
“There is no doubt in my mind that security clearances are used as a weapon by various agencies to push away a perceived problem,” said Mark Zaid, a lawyer who has defended numerous federal employees on security-clearance issues.
In most cases, there is no legal recourse to claims made by security officials whose power over clearances is virtually unchecked, Mr. Zaid said. Appeals procedures vary among agencies and are very limited. In almost all cases, clearances are never restored.
“I believe this problem is a malignant cancer that afflicts the entire intelligence community,” Mr. Tice said. “A congressional investigation is needed to determine the extent of the abuse. Until the [intelligence community] can no longer use security clearances as weapons of retaliation without any fear of any form of oversight, there will be no incentive for them to stop this outrageous practice.”
The NSA employee, a mathematician who spoke on the condition he not be identified by name, said that after the polygraph, he was forced by the agency to work in the NSA motor pool.
“I was accused of sabotage and espionage and very specifically asked who my handler was,” the former NSA official said.
The NSA mathematician said his superiors asked security officials to let him work on unclassified NSA projects, but was told he must continue “pumping gas and washing buses.”
“It’s punishment, and it’s punishment for having done nothing wrong,” the former official said.
Mr. Tice ran afoul of NSA security officials after he sent an e-mail note to DIA security officials commenting on the government’s mishandling of the recent case of FBI informant Katrina Leung, who was accused of supplying FBI secrets to China.
After DIA notified NSA of the e-mail, Mr. Tice was ordered to undergo a psychiatric test for violating security rules about contacting other agency officials. He was judged to be mentally unbalanced, and his clearance was suspended.
NSA security officials said sending the e-mail was a violation of security rules.
Mr. Tice said he later was examined by two psychiatrists who judged him fit for a clearance, but his appeals for restored clearances were ignored by NSA security officials.
The three cases, according to security specialists, are typical of the problems encountered by U.S. intelligence and policy officials who run afoul of intelligence bureaucrats.
Mr. Zaid said that in most cases, security officials focus on minor offenses, such as not reporting foreign contacts or leaving out classified documents.
“They usually focus on minor violations that are rampant within agencies,” he said.
Mr. Zaid said agency inspectors general have not been willing to take on security offices over the reported abuses.
Congress also has not addressed the security-clearance problems.
“The problem with Congress is that there is no organized effort to bring this to anyone’s attention,” he said.