TCS Daily

Stop Sleuthing

By Ken Adelman - July 15, 2002 12:00 AM

Debate now rages over how much, and how well, the FBI nabs criminals and preempts terrorist attacks. But there's scant debate over how much, and how wastefully, the FBI and related agencies investigate accomplished Americans asked to serve in government. To me, it's a near-total waste of a security agency's precious resources -- now desperately needed to prevent terrorism and save American lives.

It takes months to complete the government's "full-field background investigations" and give a candidate for any key federal post security "clearance." Exhaustive investigations of varying diligence are conducted on the 4,000 to 5,000 people the president appoints, especially on the 500 requiring Senate confirmation. One friend, previously appointed to two federal advisory boards and now to a full-time position, has three investigations underway on him by three federal security agencies. None accepts the others' clearances.
The logic behind background investigations is impeccable: We must screen job-wannabes to keep scoundrels out of office. But the practice is very much peccable (to coin a word) -- bordering on ludicrous.

Having been nominated by a president and confirmed by the Senate for sundry positions six times, I've had at least four, and as many as six, full-field investigations -- at $50,000-plus a pop.

As a non-paid member of the Defense Policy Board, I'm now in the middle of what may be my seventh investigation. The board meets every couple of months for a day or two to advise Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz. After our first meeting last year, I presumed that all members -- including Henry Kissinger, Dan Quayle, Newt Gingrich, Tom Foley, James Woolsey and a handful of four-star generals -- had been cleared.

Wrong. Board members -- including the former vice president of the United States -- were asked to be re-fingerprinted and cleared anew by government agents. During my interview with a polite agent, I was asked if I had "ever" had contact with "any foreign nationals." I explained that, as a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, yes, I did have contact with foreign nationals. In fact, many of them. Well, could I possibly list all such contacts? When told that would be impossible, the agent moved along. "Where could I locate this Mr. Wolfowitz, whom you listed as a reference?" he asked me.

As these questions suggest, these investigators, lacking knowledge of the candidates' perspective job or even their field of expertise, morph into mere stenographers. All they're told gets scribbled down and shoved into a file for their bosses. Ah, there's the rub. For these bosses eventually include staffers in the administration and Congress, who can leak the juiciest material. Full-field investigations thereby become free-fire zones for jealous job-seekers, bested business competitors, partisan foes, jilted lovers and ex-spouses.

Reputations get hurt in this inane process. That's why a dozen yeas ago Donald Rumsfeld wrote in an open letter to the FBI director reprinted on this page: "I won't cooperate in FBI checks." Though then unable to cooperate with the FBI "in good conscience," Mr. Rumsfeld nonetheless did "recognize that background checks are necessary." I'm not so sure.

Sure, we want top-notch people to fill top-notch posts -- but that's what the White House Personnel Office and Senate confirmation processes are for. And, sure, we don't want criminals in office -- but that's what one hit into the FBI database can do. Any reporter, politician or even Web-cruiser can find material on most office wannabes. Granted, some undesirables may make it through without any background check. But some do now even with a "full field" check. I'm not sure that these investigations find any (or many) bad apples who wouldn't be found in the barrel anyway.

But I am sure that security agents now gather gobs of gossip which, when leaked by young staffers, can wreck a job-candidate's reputation. Just as serious nowadays are the huge resources pretty much wasted on all these investigations. Our security agencies have more serious tasks to do.

A version of this article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal.



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