Commentary

Security clearance concerns and the COVID-19 pandemic

While there are those who say that during the COVID-19 pandemic “we’re all in this together,” the truth of the matter is that some have, or will be having, a substantially more difficult time getting through this period compared with others. Some will have contracted the virus, and of those who do, the impact will vary in severity.

The same is true with the economic and psychological impact the nationwide shutdown has on each one of us. This is something that can directly impact a clearance holder’s or applicant’s ability to maintain or obtain a security clearance.

On March 23, 2020, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) issued a statement concerning this very issue. The director wrote that NCSC is “acutely aware of the potential for economic hardship on security clearance holders” and that those impacted should not be “unduly penalized because of circumstances beyond their control.”

This is consistent with the position the Department of Defense took following the 2008 Great Recession. Moreover, in the statement NCSC pointed out an applicable mitigating factor, which reads as follows:

“…the conditions that resulted in the financial problem were largely beyond the person’s control (e.g., loss of employment, a business downturn, unexpected medical emergency, a death, divorce or separation, clear victimization by predatory lending practices, or identity theft), and the individual acted responsibly under the circumstances.”

While this should provide some comfort to clearance holders and applicants, the mitigating factor provides a condition, noting that while circumstances beyond an applicant’s control could mitigate the concern, the individual must also act “responsibly under the circumstances.” What does that mean?

Managing spending is an obvious consideration, but this alone may not be feasible for an individual or a family to meaningfully address the financial strain. So, what else can be done? The answer is there are a few things that can be done not only to alleviate the financial pain, but also to create a record that shows that you acted “responsibly” in trying to manage the financial crisis.

Mortgage holders should immediately contact their banks and see if the mortgage payments can be deferred for a period of time due to financial hardship. Renters should also see if landlords are willing to work with them in suspending payments.

Those who have student loans should immediately contact their lender and ensure that the banks are permitting them to defer payments for a few months.

Perhaps most importantly, everyone should reach out to their local bank to identify a financial adviser who can go through their expenses and develop a plan to tackle the financial concerns head on.

In addition to doing the above, individuals need to memorialize their interactions with the creditors and their financial adviser. For example: while it would make sense to speak with a financial adviser by phone or video conferencing, it is prudent to follow-up the conversation by email to ensure a record exists. Typically, a financial adviser will provide written guidance on how to tackle the problem, but it can’t hurt to begin producing a contemporaneous written record. This is critical because should an adjudication proceed to revoke or deny a clearance, this documentation will go a long way to establish that the individual acted “responsibly” under the circumstances.

Additionally, financial strain alone can lead to other issues, to include depression and increased alcohol consumption. Moreover, those who have been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, or already have a dependency on alcohol, this experience can trigger those conditions. Combined with a sense of isolation and lack of control a quarantine or sheltering in place can cause, even those who have not been diagnosed with these conditions may find themselves experiencing it. And for those who have experienced loss — whether it as a result of the virus or not — this, along with the restrictions placed on family, being able to say “goodbye” to loved ones can only exacerbate all of this.

Psychological conditions, alcohol consumption, and illegal drug use are among the guidelines that can trigger an adverse security clearance action. Luckily, what can help preserve the clearance is also “good” for the individual, and that is seeking counseling.

I have had countless clients express to me that they think that seeking medical or psychological help will be viewed negatively by clearance adjudicators. Candidly, when I first became a federal employee myself, I thought the same thing. However, nothing can be further from the truth. In fact, seeking counseling for these and other issues is actually viewed positively. In fact, under the adjudicative guidelines, seeking help and following through on guidance provided during the course of counseling does act as mitigating evidence, thus protecting the security clearance.

And why is that?

The answer is that the adjudicators understand that we’re all human beings and nothing ensures an individual’s trustworthiness, responsibility, and good judgment than an individual taking control over their situation by seeking professional guidance to ensure they are living their lives in a healthy and productive manner.

Over the years we have seen members of the armed forces, our intelligence community, and government contractors experience the difficulty that comes with serving the nation in a war zone. To take a position that would result in them ignoring the PTSD or other conditions that may emanate as a result of their service would not only be contrary to the interest of our national security, but heartless as well. Seeking help is not a sign of “weakness,” as some have thought. It’s a sign of strength because it underscores that the individual is not only self-aware, but responsible to ensure they are healthy.

In a nutshell, in a time where many are experiencing financial distress, the feeling of isolation, and the sense of lack of control, it is prudent to take control of the situation by working with others to seek advice on how to best work through the challenges you face. Not only can this help alleviate the underlying financial or other concerns, it creates evidence to show that you acted “responsibly” under the circumstance, thus protecting your security clearance.

Andrew Bakaj is a former intelligence officer and criminal investigator. He represents individuals in adverse security clearance actions, whistleblower activities, and individuals, corporations, and organizations who are facing criminal and/or administrative investigations. He is a leading expert in security clearance matters. In his professional capacities, Andrew has advised and counseled numerous senior U.S. government officials in a variety of legal and investigative areas.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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