Unpaid tax debts surprisingly frequent among those with U.S. security clearances

Being a deadbeat does not mean you cannot read secret documents

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Anyone who applies for a federal security clearance has some tough questions to answer. The questionnaire is 120 pages long, and among its demands is whether an applicant has any financial problems that might create a security vulnerability. Did the applicant file tax returns and make required payments? Does he or she have any tax debts?

More than 3 million Defense Department employees and contractors have filled out the questionnaire. But surprisingly, about 26,000 of them managed to get high-level clearances while having unpaid taxes, the Government Accountability Office reported on July 28. The grand total of these delinquent sums is about $229 million.

Lying on the questionaire is a felony that carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. So if all the applicants told the truth, then the officials who granted the clearances decided they did not care about tax delinquencies. That’s despite periodic betrayals by the likes of Aldrich Ames, a notorious CIA official who traded secrets to the Soviet Union for cash that he used to cover his debts.

“It is astonishing that there were so many cleared persons who owe so much”, said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, and an expert on classification issues. “One would expect the security clearance population to be more law abiding on average than the general public.”

GAO was able to prepare its estimate by matching Social Security numbers from the IRS Unpaid Assessment database with Defense’s database of security clearances, the Joint Personnel Adjudication System.

But the IRS is ordinarily legally constrained when it comes to sharing taxpayer information with other agencies, even with those reviewing security clearance applications. GAO previously recommended that reviewers check applications against a different database, known as the Treasury Offset Program, which helps agencies subtract delinquent debts from federal salaries and similar payments. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which has jurisdiction over clearances, studied that possibility, along with the IRS and the Office of Personnel Management, but the agencies dismissed the idea for “legal and logistical challenges,” according to the GAO report, which did not provide specifics.

Federal law doesn’t specifically bar someone with tax debt from being granted a security clearance, but guidelines on granting clearances advise caution. “An individual who is financially overextended is at risk of having to engage in illegal acts to generate funds, ” the regulations state. Officials are supposed to weigh that risk, including tax debt, when granting security clearances.

The GAO looked at all Defense personnel eligible for security clearances, including some who didn’t have them. Among those holding clearances, about 6,200 debtors had access to the highest levels of information, including top-secret clearances, despite owing about $84 million in delinquent federal taxes.

Some individuals in this rarified caegory owed millions, according to the report. Contractors and other nonfederal employees owed more than federal employees, apparently, about $52 million out of the $84 million.

Aftergood said security officials may not see tax debt as a problem, as long as it’s disclosed, and noted that lying about it, if exposed, would likely trigger felony charges. But, he said, “It renders such people vulnerable to coercion or temptation. Particularly on this scale, it seems a review of policies would be in order."

The GAO report noted that the IRS and the Director of National Intelligence have formed a working group to find an answer. One solution would be to create an exemption to the tax laws so that debtor information can be shared with security agencies for clearance decisions. But while their goal is to work it out by 2017, action is not imminent.

“Project plans were still in development; funding had not yet been established; and technologies were not yet fully developed,” the GAO said, after talking to working group members.