Paul Fernhout: How Security Clearance Process Harms National Security by Eradicating Cognitive Diversity
This essay discusses how the USA’s security clearance process (mainly related to ensuring secrecy) may have a counter-productive negative effect on the USA’s national security by reducing “cognitive diversity” among security professionals. Background refs:
Scott Page wrote an insightful book about the value of “cognitive diversity” in making effective groups, called The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. From a review:
“Rather than ponder moral questions like, ‘Why can’t we all get along?’ Dr. Page asks practical ones like, ‘How can we all be more productive together?’ The answer, he suggests, is in messy, creative organizations and environments with individuals from vastly different backgrounds and life experiences.”
Ralph J. Perro (a pseudonym) wrote an essay called: “Interviewing With An Intelligence Agency (or, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Fort Meade)”. From the document:
“After the process was over, I was talking to one of my references – a veteran Silicon Valley software executive, and former manager of mine. My reference commented on what transpired “That’s disappointing. If they can’t hire you, I have no idea who they can hire. That process seems to be designed to retain only the most bland.” The ‘bland’ comment might be a bit severe, however, considering the 1999 External Management report it would appear that the agency would appear to need creative thinkers & problem-solvers more than ever.”
What happens if you think about both of these together and consider the implications for US national security?
From Perro’s first-person account, it is clear that there are three essential personal attributes required to get a US security clearance in most cases, all of which revolve around the the need to minimize the risk a national security professional will give up a “secret”:
* Practically no social contact with foreign nationals (outside of structured work-related interactions);
* A very stable psychological and economic profile; and
* A willingness to accept an invasion of that person’s personal privacy in the name of national security (along with giving up a bit of the privacy of friends and family).
In the context of what Scott Page wrote about in The Difference, what are the “cognitive diversity” implications of such a selective filtering process as they relate to various forms of integrity or understanding?
It would seem likely that that such a person might have little curiosity about other cultures than the USA’s, as well as little direct hands-on knowledge about them. A “foreigner” would generally be an abstraction, not a drinking buddy or domestic partner.
This ideal candidate would likely have never had a serious existential emotional crisis, never had a serious financial crisis, probably had a happy childhood growing up in a stable economic situation, and probably had loving caring involved parents themselves successful in US society. So this person would have little deep understanding of people raised otherwise and how that might effect motivations and a sense of commitment (whether to good ends or bad ends).
Cognitive dissonance is a human tendency to make beliefs align. Because of cognitive dissonance, a person who has accepted a privacy invasion for himself or herself (along with some costs for family and friends) would also probably be less likely to be concerned about domestic privacy invasions in general — whatever their stated policy beliefs.
Now, there are always exceptions here and there, and no one is “perfect”. And, to be very clear, getting a security clearance does not mean someone is a bad person. Quite the opposite — such a person might be the best of neighbors, have a good sense of humor, be easy to manage, be a supporting pillar of a church or non-profit, be a good friend, be a great parent, and so on. They might be very intelligent and have a lot of interesting and useful suggestions to make from one point of view. It is a good thing to have a lot of people like that in government service related to national security. The issue comes down to whether it is a good thing to have *only* people like that thinking about national security? People with national security credentials are also often naturally turned to for their opinions on the local security and global security questions, so this filtering process effects many aspects of security in our world.
But what are the deep implications of staffing the USA’s national security organizations with *only* 99% good well-meaning reliable mainstream people (and perhaps 1% fakers) through this filtering process driven mainly by a supposed need for “secrecy”?
Well, consider the lack of “difference” among such a group in Scott Page’s terms. You might then expect you’d get as a result a somewhat xenophobic uncaring foreign policy and defense posture, created by well-meaning people who none-the-less have little insight into impoverished foreign cultures and how to most effectively establish mutual security alliances with them (given they have no personal ties or personal experience of such cultures). Domestically, you might expect an acceptance of widespread invasions of privacy in the name of national security. Which, sadly, is about what we have in the USA both for foreign and domestic policy these days. I don’t really feel much safer for all that? Do you? And even if I was to feel safer, would I feel happier to be a US citizen about those compromises?
Ironically, the USA is the world’s greatest “melting pot” or really “stew pot” of cultures, yet it may have some poor national security decision making if it is afraid of the implications of that integration. That fear is primarily because any personal link to a foreign national or any deep connection to a community outside the USA could be a potential conduit for “secrets” (which is a real risk, no doubt). But, in emphasizing the fear, we lose the opportunity for advantage of a diversity of perspectives.
Let us contrast two candidates with different very backgrounds and ask which one would get a security clearance. Which of the two would be hired to create the social and technical systems to define US National Security?
The first candidate is a woman performance artist currently couchsurfing near New York City’s Greenwich Village. She has a messed up credit history, suffers from depression, has been on psychological medication, had a terrible childhood, and has had multiple friendships and has slept with people from a variety of foreign nations who she met in NYC. She even spent a few months living in the Middle East protesting various US-related policies. She was arrested once for smoking marijuana in public outside a nightclub. She is outraged by domestic violations of privacy rights in the USA and would never submit to a security clearance screening involving lots of prying questions (if only to protect her friends). Still, she has “been there” and understands what it means to be poor and also understands what it means to see the world from multiple points of view (including the downtrodden). To her, the invasion of Iraq was an obviously stupid thing to do and she was arrested for protesting before the invasion, too. Well, it does not take much imagination to assume she would be denied a security clearance, not that she would probably ever consider a job that requires applying for one.
The second candidate is a woman with a PhD in mathematics and a master’s and bachelors degree in public policy from an Ivy League university (paid for by her professional parents). She has never known a day of hunger or homelessness in her life, has excellent credit, is very emotionally stable in the past (although the limits of that have never really been tested), has never felt a need to escape from her life using drugs, and has married a reliable accountant (himself a third generation American). She thinks that a job working at the Pentagon is worth just about any sacrifice to preserve a superior US way of life (plus, she feels she and her family and friends have nothing to hide). Well, it would seem there is probably a good chance such a person would get a security clearance, even if her polygraph readings jumped when she confessed that she has in the past purchased “fair trade” coffee that came from South America and also drives a Toyota Prius that her parents gave her as a birthday present last year.
Ten years go by and our successful second candidate has risen to a position where she is assisting in using highly mathematical Operations Research to define US defense policy and weapons systems priorities to protect against those she sincerely feels “hate us because we are free”. Do you feel safer as a result? Do you really think she could do as effective a job in thinking about security threats and opportunities relative to general US interests as the other woman who would never qualify for a security clearance?
As for our first candidate, perhaps she becomes a Volvo-driving soccer mom with three kids in Portland, Oregon, a successful author, and married to an organic grocery store manager, to give her story a reasonably happy ending in mainstream terms? 🙂
But here is a deep question implicitly raised by Scott Page’s writings. Do you think the two women, working together, along with others, might be able to do a better job at improving US national security out of their diversity of skills and experiences than either one working alone? What sort of social environment or workplace setting would it take to make that possible?
Noam Chomsky wrote in his essay: “What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream”
“There are all sorts of filtering devices to get rid of people who are a pain in the neck and think independently. Those of you who have been through college know that the educational system is very highly geared to rewarding conformity and obedience; if you don’t do that, you are a troublemaker. So, it is kind of a filtering device which ends up with people who really honestly (they aren’t lying) internalize the framework of belief and attitudes of the surrounding power system in the society.”
Well, this secrecy related clearance process is another part of what makes the US national security apparatus ineffective (or worse, often counterproductive). The ultimate consequence may be the exponential collapse of the USA as an entity through cascading national security failures amplifying each other in a downward spiral for the nation. And every step of the way might seem like a total surprise to those in the national security apparatus who were in a sense filtered specifically for their inability to see things like that coming and act on them effectively with deep contextual awareness.
Some people might suggest we are already far along that process, as exemplified by the expensive war in Iraq whose main value has apparently been as a recruiting tool for al-Qaeda. For example: “War Helps Recruit Terrorists, Hill Told: Intelligence Officials Talk Of Growing Insurgency”
“The insurgency in Iraq continues to baffle the U.S. military and intelligence communities, and the U.S. occupation has become a potent recruiting tool for al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, top U.S. national security officials told Congress yesterday. “Islamic extremists are exploiting the Iraqi conflict to recruit new anti-U.S. jihadists,” CIA Director Porter J. Goss told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “These jihadists who survive will leave Iraq experienced and focused on acts of urban terrorism,” he said. “They represent a potential pool of contacts to build transnational terrorist cells, groups and networks in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other countries.” “
Our tax dollars at work. 🙁 Or, some might even go so far as Iraq was supposed to be a (profitable-to-some) quagmire.
To be clear, I’d agree there can be a need for secrecy sometimes, like for the launch codes for nuclear weapons as long as we have a lot of them lying around (assuming we even know where they all are at this point). And pathological non-diplomatic pervasive social honesty can be hurtful, too. So, this is not a black-and-white issue.
The above suggests that a focus on “secrecy” by our national security apparatus can come with a very high cost. Secrecy can lead to an inability to effectively address the very issues people are hired to help solve. There is a deep tension between trying to keep secrets and trying to connect the dots, as well as the hiring process involved in finding the most reliable secret keepers and finding the likeliest dot connectors.
It is almost the tenth anniversary of a disaster (9/11/2001) that could potentially have been averted by “connecting the dots”. Many related books talk about various security failures resulting from intelligence compartmentalization. Even worse was the then subsequent failure by security personnel in USA to understand people in other countries (or to listen to the few who did, like in the US State Department). So, it would seem that the price of widespread secrecy may just be too high relative to the benefits (occasional covert operations?), even ignoring the costs of a loss of personal privacy that apparently went with a focus on secrecy at the national level. The cost of secrecy by creating a lack of diversity in the US national security apparatus has been, essentially, missed threats and missed opportunities.
And, that cost is even ignoring the small percentage of people who are able to fake being average well enough to pass the security screenings by being effective liars. Such people may be able to do a lot of damage internally because of the false sense of security that secrecy and compartmentalization may seem to provide, thus defeating the point of the whole process. Acknowledging that risk even more then forces even more compartmentalization and secrecy leading to even less effectiveness, again making the whole process futile.
And of course, there is always the possibility some investigators may just not do a good job (being human), even within what they are asked to do. Example: “Investigators Falsified Security Clearance Investigations”
It takes 100% success 100% of the time at security clearance screening to keep secrets; it takes only a <0.0001% failure rate on one day to lose secrets. How many secrets are really worth that cost, considering that compartmentalization makes it hard to “connect the dots”? We need to weight the cost of keeping lots of secrets against the cost of interfering with cooperation by people of good will to create an intrinsically secure and mutually secure society.
Could we perhaps redesign our security apparatus (including based around intrinsic security and mutual security) so that keeping secrets was not so important to most aspects of its operation? Could we design a security system so that the groups that dealt in “secrets” were seen as just a very small part of the security apparatus?
With the exponential increase in computing, whether storage capacity, bandwidth, or easy connectivity, one should probably assume the cost of keeping secrets is going to rise exponentially as well. The alleged activities of Bradley Manning in relation to WikiLeaks are just one example of the increasing difficulty of keeping secrets in a digital age of exponential technological expansion. Does making an “example” of Bradley Manning really fix the underlying problems related to secrecy often undermining integrity and effectiveness? How much worse will the examples have to get, to ensure total secrecy by literally hundreds of thousands of people cleared to handle secret data, especially as each “example” might create strong sympathy in ten more people? Does ignoring the deeper truths about the increasing cost of secrecy ultimately make the USA more secure?
I do not know what to do specifically to fix the existing national security culture in the USA, given it is an entrenched culture built over decades, and no doubt there are some secrets that do need to be kept secret for whatever reasons. All I can suggest is that the above analysis underscores the importance of creating open alternatives to thinking about national security issues using public sources of information in a public way by a variety of people of different backgrounds, to maximize the cognitive diversity brought to the analysis and related strategic planning tasks.
Academia and NGOs do have some broader diversity. Perhaps that performance artist first candidate above might even have been an adjunct teaching an elective art class the second candidate took? But academia and NGOs are woefully underfunded compared to the scale of the task of national security, and they also may not have the tools they need to do a great job of national security analysis and planning in a holistic way. Because so many in the US academic and NGO worlds see US foreign policy as extremely problematical, to put in charitably, they also generally just withdraw from the whole notion of thinking about “security” entirely (or in some opposite cases, think about it shallowly and compliantly).
Given how fragmented a “disciplined” academia itself is, and given how NGOs tend to be built around single-issue constituencies, it is hard to count on them by themselves to provide the cognitive diversity needed for truly effective national security. So, we really need something beyond that, more like the “Department of Peace” that several people, including Rep. Dennis Kucinich, have talked about. Until then, we can at least imagine the USA with a well-funded security organization that was not built around the notion of maintaining a high level of secrecy and compartmentalization, and which was open to the input of even soccer moms from Portland. In some ways, we have aspects of that already just by bloggers cooperating in their spare time through the internet. Could we do that better somehow?
The biggest challenge of the 21st century is the irony of technologies of abundance in the hands of those thinking in terms of scarcity.
Phi Beta Iota: The subtitle of 2010 INTELLIGENCE FOR EARTH: Clarity, Diversity, Integrity, & Sustainability specifically recognizes the vital role of diversity, when combined with clarity and integrity, toward sustainability.