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OP-ED: Security clearance concerns amid a recession and pandemic

By Eric Leckie, BridgeTower Media Newswires

For Americans who make careers out of military service, obtaining approval to handle classified information makes a big difference in terms of advancement and pay. Unfortunately, that coveted security clearance could become another victim of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The economic fallout from the pandemic is impossible to ignore. Millions have filed for unemployment; many more have watched their paychecks shrink. Interruptions in school and child care complicate work and life for parents; people who are exposed to or contract COVID-19 may face long quarantines or illnesses that hinder their ability to work or result in tragedy.

Given all of this, financial hardship inevitably looms large for many.

The number one reason for security clearance requests to be denied is financial issues. Last year, of the initial Department of Defense clearance denials that were appealed, nearly half of the initial denials were for financial considerations — by far the largest category, according to figures published by ClearanceJobs. And that’s before the pandemic began taking a toll on the economy.

The reasoning, in a nutshell: Debt could make someone more vulnerable to bribery or coercion, or signal a character flaw or lack of judgment.

Fortunately, the U.S. military has specified that financial hardships created by COVID-19 will not count against individuals when it comes to their security clearances. The key factors here are that “the conditions that resulted in the financial problem were largely beyond the person’s control . . . and the individual acted responsibly under the circumstances,” according to the Security Executive Agent Directive.

Notably, this doesn’t mean the pandemic provides an automatic pass on bad debt or pre-pandemic financial issues; the Department of Defense Consolidated Adjudications Facility still evaluates all of the circumstances to determine true security risk.

A crucial differentiator is the reason for the debt, not the debt itself. Student loans, unexpected medical bills, identity theft or financial hardships prompted by death, job loss or a divorce may be flagged, but they don’t necessarily rule out security clearance. Such mitigating circumstances make a difference, as does a proper response.

So what does it mean to act responsibly amid a global pandemic that has wreaked havoc on the national economy, not to mention personal finances?

The first step is to be proactive. CAF looks much more favorably on individuals who have promptly, honestly and voluntarily notified their superiors of their financial troubles, as well as reached out to creditors — mortgage lenders, landlords, credit card companies, etc. — to come up with a plan to handle debts.

Secondly, keep records of all communications. This may mean keeping contemporaneous notes of phone conversations, following up on conversations with emails that summarize the exchanges or filing away written communication. Even if a creditor is unhelpful or the attempt is unsuccessful, the records can help prove responsible action.

Third, act to remedy the situation. If the family loses income, show efforts to curb spending, pursue help or seek additional employment. Many banks, landlords and credit card companies currently offer assistance because of the pandemic; look into those programs to find out whether they could help in the specific situations.

According to Military OneSource, there are a number of resources available to service members:

Military relief societies for each branch of the armed forces, offering emergency financial relief. These options may include interest-free loans, grants or a combination of the two.

HEROES Care, which works through mental health providers, employment assistance programs and others to help military families in their home communities.

The American Red Cross confidentially directs people to various local, state and national resources.

Free personal financial managers are available through the Family Centers at military installations.

Military OneSource free financial counseling can put service members and their families in touch with specific programs or services, help set up payment plans with creditors and provide other services.

Understandably, dealing with security clearance reviews may be difficult while service members struggle under the weight of a pandemic and the added stress it brings to other areas of life. If CAF requests more information during a review, it’s allowing extensions through 30 days after the pandemic ends for the person to respond. If a security clearance ultimately is denied or revoked, service members have the right to a hearing.

The decision given the pandemic is whether to request an in-person or virtual hearing. Meeting face-to-face can go a long way in establishing credibility with a judge, but some agencies allow video teleconferencing if an in-person meeting isn’t possible. Still, it’s worth considering whether a virtual meeting would have the same effect in communicating personal character and responsibility.

Given a global calamity that’s putting tremendous stress on the minds, health and finances of so many, there are bound to be additional difficulties for service members. But help is available, and it’s important to remember that the Department of Defense considers more than just the debt on a balance sheet.

Eric Leckie is the principal attorney at Invictus Law in Virginia Beach.