July 3, 2013


I worked most of my adult life as an employee of the Department of Agriculture. In 1968, a friend of mine got me a job there right out of college. A few months later, I was drafted. When I got out two years later there there was a recession on, but I was guaranteed a job back at Ag, which I promptly took.

I worked about 10 years in a very large agency, where I was initially assigned to the Records Management Office, where we organized the files of documents created during the course of official business. This was in the day when everything was on paper and the sheer volume of material generated was enormous. But we knew where everything was, unlike today's e-mail dominated world.

Partly because I had just been in the Army and had a Secret clearance and mostly because no one else wanted to do it, they made me the Classified Material Control Officer (CMCO), a job that required a Top Secret Cosmic clearance. (The Cosmic part referred to access to NATO material.) I obtained the clearance despite listing the wrong place of birth on the forms. Kind of makes you wonder, doesn't it?

The job required reading classified State Department cables and re-directing them to the appropriate interested parties within the Agency. USDA had vast international operations -- in most countries we handed out more money than did the Defense Department -- so any cable traffic pertaining to our commercial interests abroad crossed my desk. I'd love to tell you about it, but then you would have to be bored to death.

Fast forward to the last few years of my career. I was working in a different agency within USDA and had stumbled into a new career as a web applications designer. It was the mid-90s, and computers and the Internet were coming into their own. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time -- a newly formed office with a lot of horsepower and a boss who gave me free rein -- and I was able to work mostly on designing web-based data entry and retrieval systems, the kind that are commonplace today but were still something of a novelty in those days. Eventually I became part of the regular computer staff, which was where I finished out my career.

I retired not too long after 9/11. Things were changing. The grown-ups in the computer facility were nervous about the three servers I had running in my office.  Cowboys like me were being roped in with security clearances and tighter access to servers. I could see the writing on the wall and was happy to leave the coming brave new world to the next crew.

Which brings us finally to the main topic of this post, the rash of security violations that have shaken the intelligence community, our allies, and ordinary citizens concerned about their privacy. The two most spectacular examples -- Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden -- are the result of changes that occurred during the years I worked in the government: the paperless office, the rise in contracting out, and the after-effects of 9/11.

What Manning and Snowden did would have been impossible back when I first started working in the government. Paper records take up a lot of space, and it requires boxes and a truck if you are going to move significant quantities. The documents that Manning and Snowden stole would have required a tractor trailer to haul away in paper form. As electronic records, a CD was all that was needed.

Contracting out began under the Reagan years. The theory was that contractors were a short-term resource that could be hired more cheaply because they received no health care or pension benefits and could be let go without all the  red tape involved in firing a career employee. But as Bob Dylan pointed out, "When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose."

Contractors went from job to job, their allegiance owed not to the government but to the firm that hired them. Those of us who chose to make a career out of Federal service had a lot to lose. We were in it for the duration. This was how were were going to raise our families, send our kids to college, and support ourselves in our old age.

As Federal employees, we signed an oath to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic ... faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter." For most of us, those weren't just words on a piece of paper. We knew we were following in the footsteps of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, who pledged "their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor."

One of he more surprising things that came out of the Snowden affair is the extent to which intelligence operations are contracted out. According to one source I found, "As of last October [2102], nearly five million people held government security clearances. Of that, 1.4 million held top-secret clearances. More than a third of those with top-secret clearances are contractors."

And all those clearances add up to a bucket of spit when you have a guy like Snowden, who purposely sought out the job at Booz-Allen-Hamilton so he could have access to the information he had already decided to make public. The insider is always the biggest threat, but security clearances are not the ultimate defense. Being vested in the system, having a career as opposed to a job, swearing allegiance to the Constitution as opposed to going to the highest bidder ... that's what breeds loyalty.

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