Individuals who hold security clearances have the great privilege of serving in positions of enormous trust and responsibility in the U.S. government. They also have an important legal and civic duty to adhere to strict rules on protecting classified material.
Slightly over 1 percent of U.S. citizens hold security clearances — and an even smaller number hold the highest clearances. Those having U.S. security clearances are among the most trusted — and most scrutinized — individuals in the world. And this is as it should be.
Security clearance holders must have a demonstrated history of honesty, discretion, reliability, sound judgment, strength of character, trustworthiness, and loyalty to the U.S.
In recent years, the U.S. intelligence community has experienced some of the worst compromises of classified information in our nation’s history. However, unauthorized disclosures of classified information may come from any security clearance holder with access to classified information, not just from within the intelligence community.
Unfortunately, we cannot expect these compromises to end any time soon. As a result, we have worked diligently to assess the damage, address public concerns, mitigate the risk of insider threats, and implement security clearance reforms that reduce the chances of another significant disclosure of classified information.
This is not about journalists and their First Amendment protections. This is about security clearance holders and their obligation to protect the information they are privileged to hold.
As a member of the intelligence community, I am honored to work with dedicated, hard-working, patriotic individuals, each with a unique mission that contributes to protecting our national security. While the public is unaware of most of our accomplishments, we all share in the tremendous satisfaction that comes with public service.
Yet, the privilege of having access to our nation’s secrets comes with serious responsibilities and accountability. Obligations of security clearance holders include reporting interactions with foreign nationals and members of the media; obtaining permission for foreign travel; sharing details of our personal finances; undergoing extensive background investigations and re-investigations; and for many, being subjected to polygraph examinations. These are all important elements of the evaluation process to which clearance holders consent. We understand and accept that these requirements are a small price to pay to protect our nation’s secrets and ensure the trust the American people have placed in us.
Some individuals seek to justify making unauthorized disclosures because they claim to be addressing wrongdoing. But it’s not up to individual clearance holders to make their own judgments about what information deserves to be in the public domain and, therefore, in the hands of adversaries such as foreign intelligence services and terrorist organizations.
Let me be clear: I believe it is important for the workforce to report any concerns. Indeed, I believe it’s their duty to do so. The intelligence community has strong whistleblower protections that provide individuals with several options to confidentially report fraud, waste and abuse under the protection of federal law, without fear of reprisal, and without compromising our national security. But disclosing classified information without authorization is not whistleblowing. Providing classified information to unauthorized individuals and organizations is not the work of a whistleblower, but unlawful activity that should be investigated and prosecuted where appropriate.
We must be constantly vigilant to the threat posed to our nation’s secrets, not only by hostile foreign nations and organizations, but insider threats as well. We can — and we have — done a great deal to try to minimize these risks. But we can never completely eliminate it. While the overwhelming majority of the U.S. government consists of dedicated, patriotic individuals who take their responsibility to protect our nation’s secrets seriously, a few seek to harm the U.S.
As holders of security clearances, we are custodians of our nation’s secrets. Protecting the American people by protecting those secrets must be our highest priority. Remember, if you have a security clearance, you are obligated to honor the trust you have been bestowed to protect our secrets, your colleagues, and our nation.
William R. Evanina is the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, a mission center within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.