BENJAMIN WITTES’ EXCELlent article on government classification of information and documents (“Shhh!,” 12/3) does not address a far more pernicious complementary concern. Access to secret information is obviously not closed to everyone. Thus there has grown a system of classification of people to whom such access is authorized (or denied) through security clearances. As a practical matter, this has far greater impact on many more people than the classification of the information itself.
Since World War II, and especially since the early ’50s, a program of vast scope and proportion has grown. It involves continuing investigation, reinvestigation, and adjudication of several million people not only in direct government employment but even in private industry (where government contracts are involved). It pervades every aspect of government-related employment, in every department, agency, and facility. Even the Department of Agriculture has a security office and issues security clearances to some employees.
From its inception, the program was a social- and sexual-conformity program, designed to exclude and stigmatize the unconventional and the unpopular, and to do so usually with a minimum of due process, and often with no due process at all. It was administered by the most extensive aggregate of dimwits ever assembled within the federal government and was based upon implementation of Victorian notions and old wives’ tales (such as that gays are all cringing, submissive victims of endless attempts at blackmail for espionage, whereas no gays are). In recent years, there has been significant improvement both in the content of the program and in the quality of the personnel administering it, but it remains a very heavy, expensive millstone around the necks of both government employment and private technological industry.
The security clearance program exercises an undue and often controlling influence on a high percentage of all personnel decisions made not only in the federal government itself but in significant segments of private industry, and is often routinely utilized to bypass protections against arbitrary action otherwise available to employees. In many instances, gifted people with much to offer are needlessly prevented from making their contributions. Because those administering the security clearance program have a vested interest in maintaining it, they resist the re-examination of its very raisond’être, which has become highly questionable now that the Cold War is over. The program continues, although, as Wittes points out, there is almost no one left against whom to safeguard this secret information.
Wittes might do well to write a second article dealing with this obsolete, abominable, festering excrescence upon our body politic.