The 2019 military spending bill came with a few changes that have gotten a lot of attention from the media and been held up as a victory by the Trump administration. A larger budget, pay increases for military, and increased career flexibility have all been celebrated by supporters as steps to further pillar our military men and women.
But some other changes that have gotten less attention up-front are just as important and making headlines now.
Section 542 of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, which was signed into law by President Trump in early August, requires the Secretary of Defense to review the security clearances of military personnel convicted of certain crimes.
The section instructs the Secretary to open an investigation when an individual is found guilty of sexual assault, sexual harassment, fraud against the United States or “any other violation that the Secretary determines renders that individual susceptible to blackmail or raises serious concern regarding the ability of that individual to hold a security clearance.”
According to the Military Officers Association of America, the section is focused at “flag officers and senior executive service personnel who have since separated from DoD.” The language of the law specifies that it applies to “a flag officer, a general officer, or an employee of the Department of Defense in the Senior Executive Service.” This means that the new guidance will hold the most senior leaders in the military and Department of Defense accountable for criminal offenses as well as with their security clearance.
Why focus just on senior leadership? Many of these individuals continue to work in the defense sector and use their security clearance after retiring from the military or government service. Imposing harsher regulations for those convicted of sexual crimes, fraud, or other serious offenses as identified by the Secretary of Defense potentially puts security protocols at risk and prevents them from continuing to work.
With increased rank comes both increased responsibility as well as increased vulnerability to blackmail should that person commit a crime. The concern for those with high security clearances is always that they could be susceptible to coercion, influence, or blackmail based on past misconduct or criminal actions.
This specific provision was added as an amendment by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) during the journey of the bill through the legislative branch earlier this year. It came after high-profile sexual misconduct cases and the national #metoo movement shed light on the prevalence of sexual harassment and misconduct in a variety of workplaces.
“The security clearances that retired military officers hold even after they retire is worth its weight in gold,” Speier said. “Those who have been found to commit crimes should not retain those clearances. Increasing the likelihood misconduct committers lose their clearances is an important step in the right direction.”
The military has long prosecuted cases of sexual assault and sexual misconduct under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Senior officers are often held to higher standards than even required by the UCMJ, with careers ending over poor judgment or lack of professionalism. But this mandatory security clearance review means that those convicted of these crimes would lose valuable job prospects out of uniform as well.
It is worth noting that the mandatory reviews are not punitive in nature. Required disciplinary action is still governed by the UCMJ and criminal laws. Rather, the security clearance reviews are meant to ensure that sensitive information is protected from potential compromise, including from individuals vulnerable to exploitation due to past conduct.