Federal investigators who conduct background checks of Defense officials have been asking if those people have had contact with the news media, apparently veering off the script for conducting national security reviews.
The questioning has alarmed good-government activists, who see it as an attempt to intimidate government officials from speaking with reporters. Meanwhile, the head of the agency that conducts background checks says there has been no directive issued to investigators on news-media contacts and that a few rogue investigators may be at fault.
“If this is happening routinely, I want to make sure we have a handle on it,” said Charles Phalen, director of the National Background Investigations Bureau. “This is not what were are instructing these people to do.”
The line of questioning appears to stem from President Donald Trump’s recent threats to revoke security clearances, emboldening some investigators to ask questions that previously were considered out of bounds, said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project On Government Oversight, a good-government watchdog organization.
“The president himself is publicly targeting people who should lose clearances,” Brian said. “That opens up the vast universe of people involved in the process to feel more at liberty to be aggressive about asking these questions.”
The question has rattled some in the national security community after Trump’s decision last week to revoke the clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan. Trump has threatened more retired and current officials with the sanction. Asking about contact with reporters carries the implicit threat of revoking or not granting security clearances, which are required for many government and contractor jobs.
In one case in recent weeks, a background investigator asked a person acting as a reference for a prospective Defense Department employee if that person had had contact with the news media, said the reference. Answering affirmatively, the reference was told, would delay and possibly prohibit the potential employee from receiving the security clearance.
The reference and the potential employee asked not to be identified out of concern that it could jeopardize employment.
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Source: USA Today