State Department Workers Protest Security Measures

The State Department is under fire for suspending security clearances for minor alleged offenses. Some officers have been collecting full pay and benefits, while doing little or no work. Security clearance procedures were tightened after Sept. 11.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're going to move now from security in Afghanistan to questions about security at the US State Department. A number of career foreign service officers claim the security clearance process has become overly aggressive since the September 11th attacks. They charge that clearances are being suspended for minor or unproven offenses. More than three dozen career officers say they've been left in limbo collecting full pay and benefits but unable to do their jobs. The State Department insists the clearance process is working fine and NPR's Mary Louise Kelly looked into it.

MARY LOUISE KELLY reporting:

For Bill Savich, the story begins in 2003. He was serving in a key US embassy overseeing security when he was accused of having an improper relationship with a local woman. In June 2003, his security clearance was suspended. Savich denies he did anything wrong, but he says investigators for the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security have been relentless.

Mr. BILL SAVICH (Career Foreign Service Officer): BDS pursued a investigation based on gossip, innuendo, seeking sexual details and meanwhile, my clearance was pulled and I've been waiting and waiting and waiting.

KELLY: Savich's story is echoed by other foreign service officers who've contacted NPR. Several have also been waiting more than two years after their clearances were pulled for offenses that would seem to have little to do with national security--misuse of a government vehicle, for example, or alleged sexual misconduct. There have been concerns about US officials being subject to blackmail for such infractions. Daniel Hirsch has been a State Department diplomat for 20 years. He says part of the problem is if a clearance has been suspended but not revoked, there's no appeals process. Investigations into merely suspended clearances can drag on for years.

Mr. DANIEL HIRSCH (State Department Diplomat): There has been a trend to say that really anywhere there is smoke, there is fire, and nobody is innocent. And if you investigate an allegation and you don't find anything, well, then you just keep looking.

KELLY: Hirsch was recalled to Washington in February 2003 after his wife asked for marital counseling. Hirsch's clearance was suspended and since then, he's been assigned what he calls a `make work' job with no chance of promotion or overseas travel.

Mr. HIRSCH: And in my case, what started out as an investigation into the question of spousal abuse and then, of course, found no evidence of spousal abuse, they then just decided what the heck. We'll keep investigating him. And they've gone back roughly 25 years in my professional career looking for any evidence of anything.

KELLY: Sharon Papp is general counsel for the American Foreign Service Association. She represents Hirsch, Savich and 19 other foreign service officers in clearance cases. Papp declined to speak on tape, but she did provide an article she's written for the upcoming issue of the Foreign Service Journal. It argues that diplomatic security officials have in several cases relied on unsubstantiated rumors in revoking clearances. And it says their investigations take way too long. The Bureau of Diplomatic Security turned down NPR's repeated requests for comment, but State Department spokesman Adam Ereli defends investigators as working as fast as they can in difficult circumstances.

Mr. ADAM ERELI (State Department Spokesman): Sometimes the investigations are complicated. They involve activities overseas. They involve talking to people that are hard to find or new information comes. So it's not always as fast as everybody would like, but it's done the way that I think is deliberate and careful and designed to move forward as quickly as they can.

KELLY: As to whether the State Department has changed its ways since September 11th and grown overly zealous in policing security clearances, there's disagreement. A second State Department official, speaking on condition his name not be used, admits, `Are we more concerned about security post-9/11? Sure, we'll plead guilty to that.' But he says, `We're not breaking the rules, and the rules haven't changed since September 11th.' Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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