Our Dangerously Bad Bureaucracy

02.21.13 11:43 AM ET

When I started as a White House staffer in 2001, I had to fill in a form that - among other things - required the date and destination of every foreign trip I'd taken over the past (I think) 10 years. I couldn't begin to remember, and since I'd converted from a paper diary to electronic only sometime late in the 1990s, the trips weren't going to be easy to reconstruct. I asked the White House counsel's office what to do. "Just do the best you can," they advised. On penalty of perjury.

Fortunately, nobody ever cared enough to double-check. The statute of limitations has long since passed on whatever mistakes I made. Yet in the intervening period, the security clearance process has not gotten any smarter, observes former deputy secretary of defense John Hamre.

I spent four hours one Saturday completing another SF-86. One of the form’s instructions was troubling: “List all foreign travel you have undertaken in the past 7 years.”

I travel extensively for business and routinely meet senior government officials. Each time, I file a trip reportbecause of my clearances. So I refused to enter the information, rather than give it to our government a second time. All of it, after all, is already in a government computer somewhere.

Soon an OPM investigator contacted me about my clearance renewal. She would need two hours with me, my secretary was told. No way, I thought. How wrong.

At the appointed hour a pleasant but mechanical investigator arrived. After presenting her credentials and informing me of my rights, she suggested we proceed.

“Is your name John Julian Hamre?” she asked.

Yes, I replied.

She asked if I lived at my street address.

I paused, a bit surprised, then replied, “Yes.”

She asked if I was born on my birth date.

I paused again. “Ma’am, do you plan to read to me my SF-86 form?” I asked. If I lied in completing the form, I noted, I was unlikely to admit it in the interview. Let’s just go to the end, I suggested. “I will swear it is all true, and if you find a fault, you can accuse me of perjury.”

My common-sense suggestion had no effect. “We prefer to read the questions to you and ask you to respond,” I was told.

In other words, to grant a top-secret clearance in the United States, we ask a potential spy to fill out a form, which is given to an employee, possibly a contract worker, who then asks the candidate to verbally confirm what he has written.