assessments

Aug 12, 2004 | 16:43 GMT

6 mins read

The Infiltration Dilemma

The United States has requested the extradition of a suspected Islamist militant in Britain, Babar Ahmed, who was arrested recently in London — allegedly with indications on his computer that he had been in contact with an unidentified U.S. sailor who had been aboard the USS Benfold — a destroyer in the Constellation battle group. According to email records, the sailor — who is no longer in the Navy — appeared to express strong sympathy for al Qaeda, and authorities believe he might have been the source of the information about the Constellation's deployment through the Straits of Hormuz in 2001, which was allegedly obtained by Ahmed.

If the allegations are true, it would not be the first time members of the U.S. military or other sensitive government institutions have been suspected of falling on the wrong side of the terrorism divide. The chart below lists nearly a dozen examples of similar incidents within the past few years culled from open-source research; it is logical to assume that additional classified investigations also are under way.

Taken together, these cases raise interesting questions: To what extent have Islamists infiltrated the U.S. armed services or other sensitive institutions? And is the process by which national security clearances are vetted stuck in a time warp from the days of James Jesus Angleton and J. Edgar Hoover?

These questions raise sensitivities — political correctness and civil liberties are certainly a part of the equation. But given the nature of the U.S. war and of al Qaeda, they are questions that are difficult to brush under the carpet.

By 1996 — with its political goals clearly established and its nemesis, the United States, identified — it would have been altogether reasonable for al Qaeda to initiate a program to infiltrate U.S. government institutions. This would have involved U.S. citizens or green-card residents who also were Muslims, with strong ties to groups that were sympathetic to al Qaeda but had not yet been placed on U.S. watch lists. If al Qaeda was rational — and we see nothing to indicate that it has been anything other than ruthlessly rational — this would inevitably be part of its program. Given U.S. security procedures in the mid-1990s — and today as well — it would be extremely difficult to identify these infiltrators.

Anyone who has ever held a classified clearance or access to sensitive government information has been required to fill out Standard Form 86 (SF86), Questionnaire for National Security Positions — the boilerplate that kicks off the background investigation process. Background investigations for national security positions are intended to determine whether you are reliable, trustworthy, of good character and loyal to the United States. Applicants must provide information about their citizenship, other names used, names of relatives, history of residences, foreign travel, financials, use of illegal drugs and drug activity, civil court actions and medical history. A cottage industry has grown up among contractors, with retirees from various federal agencies conducting the full-field background checks and routine updates.

The type of clearance requested drives the scope of the background investigation, but the whole background check process swings into gear when the SF86 form is filed. National Agency Checks (NACs) also are conducted, to include FBI criminal history. Certain government agencies require additional checks that can include a polygraph examination. On the whole, the processes will certainly weed out the thief, the pot-smoker or philanderer, but probably are not effective in rooting out the al Qaeda sleeper.

Since this process originated during the Cold War, having been born in a Warsaw Pact country or having substantial family or other ties to these countries automatically increased the barriers to being awarded security clearances — and sometimes made it impossible. The Soviets were known to send families into target countries in very long-term operations, in which the children were expected to play a role. Under any circumstances, U.S. officials had to assume the worse. It was understood that people who had emigrated from these countries would have to be treated differently than those who hadn't.

The last section of SF86 still asks typical Cold War questions:

1) Have you ever been an officer or a member or made a contribution to an organization dedicated to the violent overthrow of the United States Government and which engages in illegal activities to that end, knowing that the organization engages in such activities with the specific intent to further such activities?

2) Have you ever knowingly engaged in any acts or activities designed to overthrow the U.S. government by force?

This, presumably, is where the U.S. government is hoping an al Qaeda sleeper would be spurred to confess.

The problem with the national security clearance system and background check process is this: It has in effect been bound and gagged by both legal prohibitions and political correctness. From the military personnel or federal employee's standpoint, no one wants to be the whistleblower who casts doubt on the reputation of a colleague who happens to be Muslim; from a process standpoint, many of the questions that could be effective in weeding out al Qaeda operatives — such as questions about religious leanings — are simply illegal.

Speaking informally, federal agents who conduct background checks treat the question of al Qaeda infiltration as a can of worms that is best left untouched. The standard questions are still being asked — civil liberties prevent the government from asking more penetrating questions about clearance applicants' religious preferences. The system perhaps could be improved if the government employed more cleared Muslim agents — those who understand the culture and could question an applicant's family and friends in Arabic or other native languages (but the fact that these workers would, themselves, need to pass clearance procedures poses something of a Catch-22). As it stands, case files for background checks are randomly assigned to investigators — a system that would be difficult to change even if more Muslims were employed. In fairness to the process, if an applicant's name has come up in connection with any subversive group in a federal database — and the system worked like it is supposed to work — the particulars would surface in the NAC.

Ultimately, however, national security demands that Muslims who joined intelligence organizations — such as the U.S. military, CIA, FBI or National Security Agency — after 1995 should be scrutinized with the same care as immigrants from Soviet-bloc countries entering the United States in 1956 were. Some of those were communist agents, sent in against the crown. And some Muslims in government service in the United States and Britain pose an equal security risk. Pretending otherwise is pointless — and someone aboard the Benfold certainly sent emails to a guy named Babar.

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