Security Clearances: The Hard Hitting Questions
“Have you EVER knowingly engaged in activities designed to overthrow the U.S. government by force?”
I sat back in my chair while looking at the question on my screen. I was two years out of college and enjoying the warmth of my Rochester, NY apartment. I chose this apartment complex because it had a bunch of available units and they paid the heating bills, which was handy in upstate New York’s winters. It was decorated like an IKEA showroom except for most of the extra stuff. Coffee table, futon, bookcase, desk, and TV. Yeah, this was definitely the apartment of someone way too lazy to try to overthrow the U.S government.
After years of SATs, ACTs, a nearly infinite number of college exams, and numerous employment applications, I’ve never had a question hit me quite like this one. It was the first step in a several month process of being approved for government security clearances, which I would need for my new job. I had already spent hours filling out personal information about myself and about people that I knew. I answered questions about drug usage and trips I had taken to foreign lands. This question, though, was just… bizarre.
Why was the word ‘EVER’ capitalized? Did they think someone filling this out might assume there was a statute of limitations when forcefully overthrowing the U.S. government? “Hey, look I was 18 at the time and I thought it would get me laid. Crazy that time in your life, you understand.” I would have capitalized ‘knowingly’ because I don’t think you should be dinged for merely being a pawn in someone else’s quest for domination. I mean, who hasn’t that happened to at least once in their life? “All I know is that I was given a briefcase and told to wait on the bench at the corner of 19th and Scorlen Drive. If a man approached me and asked about the weather in Des Moines, I needed to respond with ‘It’s snowing but it’s always warm.’ If he then replied with ‘the crow flies at midnight,’ I was supposed to give him the briefcase. That’s it. How was I supposed to know it was for something bad?”
And why narrow this to only trying to overthrow the U.S. government? Look, I don’t know other people’s whole stories, but if you were involved in forcefully overthrowing Liechtenstein’s government, I don’t think you should be privy to our government’s national security secrets. Once a government overthrower, always a government overthrower I always say.
And why does it have to be by force? What if I, I mean someone else, has overthrown a government by slick wit, charm, and straight up bribery? Let’s say this person wasn’t happy with how his, or her, high school government student elections turned out and then convinced the math club to declare the election results to be miscounted. Let’s say then that an interim council was formed and exclusively consisted of people from the theater club, where I may or may not have been the vice president. What if then a puppet government was created based on a sham election and a new president was installed who may or may not have owed me a major favor for totally hooking him up with Randi Sherman back in 10th grade? I’m not saying any of this happened, I’m just asking the question. But just for reference, I was visiting family back in India at the time.
Aside from once choosing the Soviet side when playing against Jon Renden in Command and Conquer: Red Alert, this was a pretty obvious no. As I clicked the ‘no’ box, I noticed there was a section under the ‘yes’ requesting, “If yes, please explain.” There was a small box that seemed big enough for, at most, eight words. If you check yes on an employment application asking if you’ve ever been convicted of a felony, you get a much larger box to explain yourself. If you’ve ever attempted to forcefully overthrow the U.S. government and are looking for a job requiring security clearances, you better be extraordinarily concise.
I was about to click ‘done’ but I just had to know. I went back to the question, changed my answer, and clicked ‘yes.’ I sat there for about two minutes. I wondered if there would be a knock at my door or if someone might smash in through my window. I smoked pot a few times and once shoplifted a Hot Wheels car when I was like seven but this was different. This was federal. I stood (or sat) in the face of danger and I won. Then I very quickly changed my answer back to no, clicked ‘done’, closed the application, and turned the volume up on my TV to finish watching Scrubs.