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Rove's Security Clearance Widely Questioned

Federal workers under suspicion of smaller lapses have had access to classified data yanked.

November 06, 2005|Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — An intelligence analyst temporarily lost his top-secret security clearance because he faxed his resume using a commercial machine.

An employee of the Defense Department had her clearance suspended for months because a jilted boyfriend called to say she might not be reliable.

An Army officer who spoke publicly about intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks had his clearance revoked over questions about $67 in personal charges to a military cellphone.

But in the White House, where Karl Rove is under federal investigation for his role in the exposure of a covert CIA officer, the longtime advisor to President Bush continues to enjoy full access to government secrets.

That is drawing the attention of intelligence experts and prominent conservatives as a debate brews over whether Rove should retain his top-secret clearance and remain in his post as White House deputy chief of staff -- even as Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald mulls over whether to charge him with a crime in connection with the operative's exposure.

"The agencies can move without hesitating when they even suspect a breach of the rules has occurred, much less an actual breach of information," said Mark Zaid, a Washington attorney who has represented more than three dozen intelligence officers in security clearance cases, including those cited above.

If Rove's access to classified information were taken away, it would prevent him from doing much of his job. His wide portfolio includes domestic policy and national security issues, and he is at the president's side often during the day.

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) joined Democrats last week in questioning whether the advisor should retain his policymaking post.

Bush has resisted demands in recent days from Democrats and other administration critics that he revoke Rove's security clearance or fire him; he says he is deferring comment until Fitzgerald finishes his inquiry. But there were signs this weekend that the White House was sensitive to the charge: It has scheduled a series of staff refresher lectures on ethics and classified information.

Several intelligence experts and a prominent conservative said in interviews that the White House should take the question of security clearance much more seriously.

Some said that whether or not Rove was ultimately charged with a crime, he might have violated policies governing how officials are expected to treat classified information.

Rove, like all White House employees granted security clearance, was required to sign a "Classified Information Nondisclosure Agreement" acknowledging that "unauthorized disclosure, unauthorized retention or negligent handling of classified information by me could cause damage or irreparable injury to the United States or could be used to advantage by a foreign nation," according to a blank form posted on a federal website.

The form also notes, "I have been advised that any breach of this agreement may result in the termination of any security clearances I hold; removal from any position of special confidence and trust requiring such clearances; or the termination of my employment or other relationships with the departments or agencies that granted my security clearance or clearances."

Every employee given a secret, top-secret or higher clearance is also required to undergo several hours of training on dealing with classified information.

Rove is said to have one of the highest levels of clearance. The level held by senior White House officials is a special subset within the group cleared to see top-secret documents. This high clearance is called TS/SCI clearance -- which stands for Top-Secret/Sensitive Compartmentalized Information.

A former White House official described going to a conference room in the Old Executive Office Building soon after joining the staff to watch an instructional video and get in-person training from federal agents who emphasize the need to take care with secret information. The former official was warned not to discuss any classified information learned on the job with those outside the complex who might not have the same clearance.

Each employee was asked to sign the nondisclosure agreement after the training and given a booklet explaining the rules, which include prohibitions against providing classified information -- or even confirming it -- to reporters.

A briefing booklet typically given to government employees when they receive their security clearance states that an official cannot confirm information that is classified, even if it has been published in a newspaper article.

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