Don’t Fear the Defense Department’s Delinquent Debtors
Back-tax numbers aren’t as scary as the headlines
On July 28, the Government Accountability Office released a report claiming that 83,000 Defense Department employees owe back taxes totaling $730 million.
Worse, those employees all are eligible for a security clearance.
There’s a lot of startling information in the report. But after reading it very closely, I’d like to urge calm.
First, there’s the word eligible. Only 26,000 of the 83,000 debtors have any kind of security clearance. Those 26,000 owe $229 million. Of that number, only 6,200 tax-delinquent Pentagon employees have access to highly classified—or top secret—data. Their tax debt is $83 million.
According to the report, America’s total uncollected tax debt is $374 billion.
It’s also important to remember that the GAO’s report is part of a series. In the fall of last year, the GAO released a shorter version of the report focusing just on employees in the executive branch. It’s doing these studies at the behest of Congress to figure out ways to improve a system of checks that already exist.
“Federal laws do not prohibit an individual with unpaid federal taxes from holding a security clearance,” the report explains. “But tax debt poses a potential vulnerability that is to be considered in making a clearance determination.”
The agencies approving security clearances already consider personal debt—including back taxes—when reviewing applicants. The problem is that accessing that tax information at the time of the check can be a pain.
Right now, federal agencies aren’t allowed to access an individual taxpayer’s records without their consent. Even with consent, the process is slow and the IRS provides limited information. The real purpose of these reports is to argue in favor of changing those rules.
The GAO recommends establishing an automated system. Ideally, employees under the Director of National Intelligence would run anyone seeking security clearance through an IRS database. The system would kick back anyone with questionable tax debts and alert officials of any drastic changes.
Which is good policy. “Most individuals accrued tax debt after clearance adjudication,” the report admits. More than 75 percent of those with security clearance and tax debt went into debt after they gained their clearance.
The system by which the Pentagon grants security clearances has been under fire a lot in the previous year. Senators Tom Coburn and Dave Camp have called for its overhaul.
Some contend a more stringent review process would have kept Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis from gaining access to the facility. Both Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning leaked information they acquired using legitimately obtained security clearances.
Aldrich Ames was awful with money. The CIA counterintelligence officer funneled secrets to the Kremlin to help pay his debts. John Anthony Walker began selling secrets to Russia in 1967. He needed a way to get out of debt after his business failed.
Financial pressure is a strong motivator to leak classified information. But Manning and Snowden abused their security clearances for ideological rather than financial reasons. Ideals—especially those not tied to established religious or political organizations—are hard to uncover during the vetting process.
The process by which the Pentagon hands out security clearances does need to change. Around five million people have some kind of access. That’s a number many would like to see reduced.
The 26,000 who owe back taxes represent less than half of one percent of the five million.
The question of who gets access to what sensitive information is complicated. Fiscal responsibility is just one factor … and the issue of delinquent taxes appears to be a tiny part of that concern.
I’d be more interested to know the unpaid credit card debt of those we trust with state secrets.