- The Washington Times - Monday, September 18, 2006

Dozens of Foreign Service officers say their careers are in ruins because their security clearances were suspended based on suspicions or unsubstantiated accusations.

Several have accused the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) in interviews of “abusing the security clearance process” by punishing “whistleblowing, dissenting viewpoints or minor acts of possible misfeasance unrelated to national security.”

“All I want is a resolution, even if they decide to revoke my clearance,” said Daniel Hirsch, whose request for an assignment in Iraq or Afghanistan has languished for three years.

“At least, I’ll be able to take further action. Now, my hands are tied, and I’m just waiting while my career is being destroyed.”

Mr. Hirsch, a Foreign Service officer for 21 years, has spent his career working in hardship posts in Africa, Central Asia and the Balkans, so it was only fitting that he would volunteer for the world’s most dangerous places.

“I put my name in several times a year, but I’ve never heard back from anyone,” he said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has repeatedly called for U.S. diplomats to serve in the two posts that the Bush administration deems most important for its war on terrorism.

But Mr. Hirsch is not eligible to serve in any overseas post while awaiting the outcome of a DSS investigation that began in 2003. He said he has been kept in the dark about its findings and possible outcome.

“DSS maintains that they do not even have to establish any facts in order to revoke a clearance, much less suspend one” said Mr. Hirsch, whose battle with DSS began when his wife sought marital counseling at their last post in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.

That counseling prompted suspicions of spousal abuse, which continue to be investigated, even though his wife has repeatedly denied any such abuse in writing.

Mr. Hirsch said the DSS dug up a brief episode from his past — a trip he took with the group Volunteers for Israel when he was 23 and working for the CIA. The agency knew about it, he said, but DSS became suspicious about a picture of him in an Israeli military uniform.

DSS declined to comment for this article, saying only that it does everything according to the law and administrative regulations. A spokeswoman said there are up to 30 suspensions every year from among the up to 40,000 State Department employees and contractors who hold security clearances at any given time.

Diplomats with suspended clearance are given desk jobs in Washington that require little of their expertise and experience.

Les Hickman, who had his clearance suspended in November 2002, said the DSS has “no transparent procedure about how they do things.”

“What happened to me was based on allegations, nothing factual,” he said.

Mr. Hickman, who has been in the Foreign Service since 1978, was the U.S. consul in Amman, Jordan, when DSS discovered that one of his local Jordanian employees was taking money from visa applicants to expedite their paperwork.

That employee’s duties included processing applications from Iraqis, who after the September 11 terrorist attacks required special screening, and Mr. Hickman had issued instructions that all Iraqi cases be referred to him.

Because only Mr. Hickman and the local employee had access to those applications, DSS suspected that the consul might be involved in the fraud scheme as well. His clearance was suspended, and he was relieved of his duties.

The investigation found that bribes had been taken only from Jordanians and not Iraqis, and it produced no evidence that Mr. Hickman had anything to do with the scheme. Mr. Hickman said he knew nothing about it, and the Jordanian employee said he had acted alone.

Then DSS accused Mr. Hickman of abusing his power by forbidding anyone else in the consulate to handle the Iraqi applications. Mr. Hickman said he did that because his junior officers did not understand the State Department’s new instructions and made mistakes.

Mr. Hickman, who was last interviewed by DSS in June 2004, said he does not understand why the State Department allows cases such as his to drag on for years when critical diplomatic posts — and consular positions in particular — remain vacant.

In some cases, Mr. Hirsch said, clearances have been suspended based on nothing more than an accusation.

Bruce Knotts was the deputy chief of mission in Banjul, Gambia, in February 2004, when a local security guard accused him of making a sexual pass at him.

“That never happened, although I am gay,” Mr. Knotts said, “but the guard’s story was that he refused, and I turned around and left. Nevertheless, they gave me 24 hours to leave the embassy.”

Last December, DSS recommended that his clearance be revoked. It denied his first appeal last month, and he is about to take his case to a panel of representatives from the offices of the undersecretary of state for management, the assistant secretary for administration and the director-general of the Foreign Service.

“This is my best shot,” he said. “It’s the first chance to talk to somebody other than DSS.”

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