Although Sarah Palin smack talks Barack Obama for "palling around with terrorists," it turns out that the Palin family has its own history of palling around with Alaska's own unique brand of America-haters. Palin's husband Todd was once an actual member of the secessionist Alaskan Independence Party (AIP). Palin herself was not a member of AIP -- but many AIP luminaries claim her as a kindred spirit and "one of their own."
A charitable characterization of AIP might be "quirky down-home Alaska politics." However, the security processes that govern access to our defense and national security institutions might not look so kindly on Todd Palin's past political associations. Indeed, if Todd Palin were applying for a job in the US government or at a contractor that required access to sensitive classified information -- a security clearance -- he would very likely be ineligible.
What's so bad about the AIP? The party officially renounces violence and disloyalty to the United States, even though its members often do not. The AIP has long been aligned closely with paramilitary militia groups -- the kind that fear black helicopters and a United Nations takeover of the US. Indeed, under the leadership of AIP's tough-talking founder, Joe Vogler, AIP allied itself with the Islamic dictatorship in Iran in 1993 so that Vogler could appear at the United Nations to appeal for Alaska's freedom from US "tyranny." A fellow AIP member murdered Vogler before he could take the UN stage. The current AIP chairwoman, Lynnette Clark, believes that Vogler's killer was framed and all but blames the Federal government for Vogler's "execution."
Security clearances are a defining fact of life for the national security drones who quietly toil away in secret vaults and mean foreign streets to help protect America. Entry-level defense and intelligence employees often wait months -- even years -- for the results of an exhaustive background investigation and maybe even a polygraph interrogation before they are allowed to start work with a government agency or contractor. Seasoned intelligence and defense workers routinely re-submit to the security investigation process every few years, or if their work requires them to gain access to a specialized or "compartmented" program.
The criteria for security clearances have changed with the times, but some bedrock principles always apply. When I was in the Army in the '80s for example, tattoos were actually a disqualifying factor for a clearance, as was any past drug use. Fashion and social changes forced a change to those kinds of exclusions. In the early '90s, homosexuality was still a disqualifier -- but that was overturned with Clinton-era adjustments to the clearance process. The rise of computer culture has brought new concern over illegal computer activity, which has found its way into security investigations.
However, security investigators will always be interested in particularly serious issues -- criminal activity, for example, or major financial problems like a history of debt collections and bankruptcy. And of course, loyalty to the US and foreign connections are a major focus of personal security investigations. "Is the subject a foreign spy?" the investigators ask. "Would the subject ever participate in activities intended to harm the United States?"
The security clearance investigation is based on the Standard Form 86, a 21-plus page government form that gathers information on an individual's family, friends, education, employment, residences, finances, law enforcement history, drug and computer use, foreign contacts, and associations with violent or subversive political groups. I have filled out the SF 86 dozens of times. When I was the security officer for an intelligence contractor, I routinely reviewed our employees' SF 86 forms before asking the government to process them for security clearances, looking for obvious disqualifications. The idea here was to avoid the costs of investigating employees who were obviously not eligible for a clearance, like the guy who "experimented" with marijuana at least 100 times in the previous year.
Above all, honesty is the rule for anyone filling out an SF 86 -- do you think CIA or DoD will want to hire or retain someone who lied on a security form?
Which gets us back to Todd Palin. From the security officer's perspective, Todd Palin the hypothetical applicant should be truthful and disclose his former association with AIP on the SF 86 in Section 29, Association Record. And because AIP has been associated with the Revolutionary Government of Iran, he probably should also disclose his AIP membership on Section 20, Foreign Activities.
How would government security officials who administer the security clearance process view the facts of Todd Palin's association with AIP? The answer is not clear cut, but his involvement in a secessionist party with foreign and violent connections would inject serious doubts about his security suitability. At best, the AIP association would raise questions that might be resolved favorably with further investigative work. However, many security officials would likely view the AIP association negatively -- especially the Iranian connection -- and deny Todd Palin a clearance.
Managers of the most sensitive special security programs are allowed wide latitude in denying clearances. These programs, called Special Access Programs, or SAPs, are scattered across government and are focused on specific tasks, such as weapons development or special operations or presidential transportation. A SAP program can exclude individuals based on connections to a foreign country, such as immigrant parents (often excluding vitally needed foreign language speakers), or very stringent financial criteria, such as $10,000 in unsecured debt (often excluding many recent college graduates). Many SAP managers would very likely deny Palin a clearance based on association with or membership in a secessionist party with known ties to a hostile foreign government.
So the Palin family is associated with a political party hostile to America in word and deed. That's a matter of record that has real impact on established norms in the national security community. According to the laws and processes that help protect national security, actually joining a fringe, gun-toting, anti-government party indicates a potential risk of disloyalty, or worse.
Meanwhile, acquaintance with an aging ex-hippy who once belonged to a terrorist group famous for accidentally blowing itself up -- I'm not sure if that's relevant to presidential qualifications. Or national security.
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