Personal Debt and National Security

09.29.20 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Last June the Department of Defense denied an application for security clearance for access to classified information because the applicant had “delinquent debts totaling about $24,000.”

In May, a defense contractor was denied a security clearance based on delinquent debts totaling $87,517.

In fact, excessive personal debt is among the most commonly cited reasons for denying or revoking access to classified information.

The rationale for linking personal financial behavior with national security is spelled out in the National Security Adjudicative Guidelines for Determining Eligibility for Access to Classified Information that are published in Security Executive Agent Directive 4 (Guideline F: Financial Considerations):

“Failure to live within one’s means, satisfy debts, and meet financial obligations may indicate poor self-control, lack of judgment, or unwillingness to abide by rules and regulations, all of which can raise questions about an individual’s reliability, trustworthiness, and ability to protect classified or sensitive information. . . . An individual who is financially overextended is at greater risk of having to engage in illegal or otherwise questionable acts to generate funds. Affluence that cannot be explained by known sources of income is also a security concern insofar as it may result from criminal activity, including espionage.”

“Conditions that could raise a security concern and may be disqualifying include:
(a) inability to satisfy debts;
(b) unwillingness to satisfy debts regardless of the ability to do so;
(c) a history of not meeting financial obligations;
(d) deceptive or illegal financial practices such as embezzlement, employee theft, check fraud, expense account fraud, mortgage fraud, filing deceptive loan statements and other intentional financial breaches of trust;
(e) consistent spending beyond one’s means or frivolous or irresponsible spending, which may be indicated by excessive indebtedness, significant negative cash flow, a history of late payments or of non-payment, or other negative financial indicators;” and so on.

See the entire Guideline F in Security Executive Agent Directive 4.

The subject arises, of course, because of reporting from the New York Times that President Trump has personal debt totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.

The concern is not so much the blatant unfairness of the dual standard by which thousands of individuals are denied a clearance for a minuscule fraction of the financial irresponsibility displayed by the President.

The problem is that the entire apparatus of security clearances is being mooted and undermined by the President who controls it. It does little good to try to ensure the integrity of each individual member of the massive defense and intelligence bureaucracies if their chief executive is himself potentially vulnerable to overwhelming financial pressure.

According to the latest government quarterly report on security clearance policy, around 2.3 million cleared individuals (out of perhaps 4 million or so) are now subject to “continuous evaluation” to promptly detect financial irregularities or other activity of security concern.

In the new fiscal year, the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency says it will “expand the number of individuals covered by continuous high-value checks, including providing alert management and real-time threat analysis and reporting, for the national security sensitive population.” The President is not among the covered individuals.