Submitted by Eric Chandler, Lakewood.
First of all I can commiserate with you folks that are absolutely bewildered by all of this gobbledygook that is hitting the airwaves of late, particularly all of these security-specific acronyms. Anyone who has not experienced the world of government secrecy can be easily confused and mislead by folks who have limited experience with such things. Well, I am here to tell you I know this stuff….intimately, thru practical experience while in the US of Army, particularly my last 10 years of active duty.
First off, lets get some definitions clarified. SCI is an acronym assigned by our government to clearly identify a group of data and information which requires extremelyspecial-handling. SCI translates to Sensitive Compartmented Information. It is used in conjunction with a classification level, like TOP SECRET. They both require two different handling and protection requirements as do all classification levels, which I will explain in more detail later.
Are there other classification levels? Yes, and they are Confidential and Secret. And all three are assigned based upon the nature of what they cover:
- The lowest level, CONFIDENTIAL (C), designates information whose release could damage U.S. national security.
- SECRET (S) refers to information whose disclosure could cause “serious” damage to U.S. national security.
- The designation TOP SECRET (TS) means disclosure of the document could cause “exceptionally grave” damage to national security.
What follows is based on my own 20 years of personal experiences as an NCO & Warrant Officer working in multiple classification environments. To ensure I was up to snuff on recent practices, I did some Googling. So, here is what its all about….using TS-SCI as an example:
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) defines SCI as classified information “concerning or derived from intelligence sources, methods or analytical processes that is required to be protected within formal access control systems established by the DNI.” And, by the way, the SCI designation can be assigned to any security clearance level: Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret, the latter being the highest classification level assigned.
SCI covers special collections systems, analytical processing, targeting, and other information requiring special protections and unique handling protocols. That includes nuclear systems.
SCI clearance investigations involve an additional screening process. Not everyone with a TOP SECRET (TS) clearance has SCI access. You’ll only be eligible for SCI screening if you have specific duties requiring access to this information.
Normally, one must be “nominated” to apply for this special access by those they work for. The nominee then must fill out and submit Standard Form (SF) 86 (Questionnaire for National Security Positions) to their security staff. That form requires the respondent to account for the past 7-10 years of their lives.
This includes: financial records, credit reports, past addresses, phone numbers, relationships, affiliations, jobs, public records, friends, family members and co-workers. All of these items will be checked and double checked and will include interviews by government agents. They may even interview your ex.
For non-DoD (Department of Defense) persons, the investigation on just the TOP SECRET part will take approximately 8-15 months which includes an in-person interview with an investigator and is normally done by the FBI. Depending on the SCI category, it may also require a polygraph test. The SCI portion is controlled by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and can only be requested after the TS is complete. This can take additional 4-6 weeks for that process.
The Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA) processes and adjudicates clearances for DoD personnel; covers the same ground; and takes roughly the same amount of time.
Investigations will include interviews by the FBI/DCS agents of any person or organization the applicant has listed on their SF 86. Investigators will cross-reference all information, and if any discrepancies are found they must be re-checked. Any false information is cause for the applicant to be disqualified for the clearance requested.
While in the US Army I was granted access to several security access levels. As a Senior NCO I held a SECRET clearance for 4 years because of the weapons systems I was supporting. While at Supreme Hq Allied Powers, Europe (SHAPE) I was granted a TOP SECRET, ATOMAL (i.e., Nukes) clearance for the 3 years I was there. As a Chief Warrant Officer, when I was assigned to a Military Intelligence (MI) Organization, I was granted a TOP SECRET, SCI clearance, which was based on my submission of all the information noted above. I served in that position for 4 years.
My Military Occupation Specialty was in Information Systems. For most of my career I provided analysis, design, development, and testing of software and data systems in support of the organization I worked for. In my MI job I was the Chief of Plans and Programming and was responsible for justifying, acquiring, supporting, and managing Systems’ Life Cycle actions for an all-source intelligence organization. “All Source” translates to supporting a litany of Sensitive Intelligence Compartments. In so doing, I supervised both military and civilian technicians, all of whom held TS–SCI clearances as well.
Be advised, just because you have a “clearance” does not mean you can go hunting through safes or facilities picking up any old document or looking at a monitor to see “what’s happenin’ here?” Having the clearance simply means you can look at something, provided you have “the need to know”. By the way….no one person has access to all of the SCI material. Again, access is based on a NEED TO KNOW.
And, quite honestly, during most of my career I had little need to access much of any sensitive data/information. In fact while I held a SECRET clearance, the highest level I NEEDED to access was CONFIDENTIAL.
At SHAPE, most of my work had to do with SECRET systems, and the only time I saw a TOP SECRET, ATOMAL document was when one was inadvertently slipped in with some computer listings I received. When I saw “it” I darn near crapped my drawers, and immediately called security….not because I had seen the document (i.e., fortunately I was cleared to) but that it had been accidentally inserted with UNCLASSIFIED listings. In essence a security breach.
While with the MI people I rarely needed access to TS-SCI material, and the only time I needed to do that was to understand the unique data/information/processing requirements they required. One time I asked a question and the person I was talking with asked if I had permission for a particular SCI compartment. I said “No”, and he said, “Well then I can’t tell you anything until your are cleared for that compartment.” End of discussion.
Of note….SCI documents and computer storage devices (i.e., disk or thumb drives) are always kept in a safe, until someone needs to access them. When the SCI material is removed from a safe, the assigned “keeper of the safe”….literally signs it out the receiving person, noting name, date, & time, followed by a signature. If it is going to leave the SCIF, it is noted where and why. When returned the name of the recipient, date, & time are once again written down.
If this procedure is followed, a complete record of that document’s life is recorded…it serves as a chain of evidence of covering who, what, when, where and why. If that chain was ignored, it is clearly evident by whom.
Now, one final thing about SCI materials. They are REQUIRED to be generated, read, discussed about, and stored in a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF). This is a specially constructed building that does not allow any sound or electronic emissions to the outside world. It has no windows; requires specially built electrical, communications, heating and air-conditioning conduits; and is guarded by armed security personnel. It is the ONLY place one can OPENLY discuss SCI material. The conversation indicated immediately above was inside a SCIF.
When SCI material is removed and taken to another location it is first put in a special container which is locked onto the custodian/courier’s arm who is armed and allowed to use deadly force against anyone attempting to take it away. On occasion such documents need to be read by someone on a daily basis, like a senior US government executive or a high-level commander who does not have immediate access to a SCIF. When received at their office, the doors are locked and window shades are drawn. The person reading the document can only read it. No notes, no discussion, just read it, tuck it into your brain and hand it back to the SCI Custodian. If action is necessary on the document’s contents, then it needs to be taken back to a SCIF where appropriately cleared persons can be called in to work whatever the issue is.
There are other “special handling” procedures (i.e., cover sheets, marking, & Information Systems operations) but, I think I have covered the ones that can help you better understand what it takes to protect such material, and, importantly…why.