I wrote this post on Feb 20, 2020, and I always thought it was an entertaining episode. FBI Special Agent Elvis Chan, who features prominently in the post, has been in the news lately as he played a major role in the Twitter Files. I will stay out of politics, except to note that Elvis was indeed a liaison to the business community, as seen here.
I was working at Juniper when the CIO asked me to apply for a government security clearance. There were a number of hacking attempts on our network, and a security clearance would make me eligible for briefings from the government on the nature and scope of the threats against the United States’ networks. Being one of the few US citizens in our department, and having a security background, it made sense.
I met with our “FSO”, the on-site liaison to the clearance-granting agency, in this case the Department of Defense. I’ll call him Billy. Billy pointed me to the government web site which housed the application, called “OPM”. The OPM application was extensive, requiring me to input huge amounts of information about myself and my family. It required a bit of work to track down some of the information, and when I printed the PDF copy of the application it totaled around eighty pages.
One day Billy called me into his office and told me I had been awarded a secret clearance. He let me know that I could be subject to the death penalty if I divulged any classified information. I signed some documents, and that was it. “Don’t I get a card for my wallet or anything?” I asked Billy. He just smiled.
Shortly after getting my clearance, one of our other cleared employees brought me into a secure office in one of Juniper’s buildings where we could look at classified information. He pulled a secured laptop out of a locked drawer, and a password out of a sealed envelope. We began perusing classified information. None of it was relevant to us, and none of it was particularly memorable. For example, we read an article about several criminal gangs, the existence of which was unclassified. The only classified information in the article happened to be the names of particular gangs. They didn’t mean much to me, and I probably forgot them within a day or two.
One day I was invited to the San Francisco FBI office, to receive a classified briefing. Billy had to fax the clearance over, because the DoD and FBI didn’t have an electronic way to exchange clearances. I showed up, excited, to the federal building in San Francisco and proceeded up to the floor where the briefing was to take place. Nobody was there. I wandered around the white hallway with locked doors unable to make contact with anyone. The elevator opened after a few minutes, and another equally confused attendee emerged. We were wandering around for several minutes before someone showed up and told us to go to a different floor.
On the new floor a couple of young-looking FBI agents setup a table, checked our ID’s, and then took our cell phones. The security did not seem very rigorous. They then admitted us to the SCIF, or Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. The room we were led into was just a conference room, with a low ceiling and no windows. Another young-looking FBI agent approached me, wearing a tie but no coat. “Hi, I’m Elvis,” he said.
“I’m a special agent and the coordinator of the briefing today. We’re very excited to have you here.”
We had a brief conversation about my job and role, and then I asked to use the bathroom.
“Go out the back door of the SCIF and hang a right, he said.”
I did this, and found myself walking with a wall on my right, and a row of waist-level cubicles on my left. Nobody was in the the cubes, but paperwork was sitting on most of the desks. I wanted to peer at the paperwork as I walked by. I have a clearance, I figured, so if I had a right to at least take a peek and see if the names of anyone I knew appeared. Unfortunately, without pausing and staring, a chance I didn’t want to take, I couldn’t read anything.
I found the bathroom, and as I was participating in nature’s call, a couple of guys came in wearing ties but no sport coats. They each had side-arms on their belts. I wondered why these agents, who are basically office workers, needed to walk around armed.
As I came out of the bathroom, a female FBI agent was standing there, tapping her foot in anticipation of my emergence. She looked like my school librarian. Diminutive in stature, she had a side-arm that looked as big as she was.
“Are you FBI?” she asked pointedly.
“No,” I replied, thinking the answer was obvious.
She let out a long sigh, looking like a satisfied cop who has caught a perp. “You can’t be here without an escort,” she scolded me.
“But Elvis told me I could!” was my retort. I had a sudden realization that, in a large FBI office like San Francisco’s, it was entirely possible that not every FBI agent knew every other FBI agent, and that my host agent may have been entirely unknown to her. Here I was, by myself, in the inner sanctum of an FBI office, explaining to an armed federal agent that I happened to be there because Elvis had sent me.
Fortunately, a glimmer of recognition flashed across her stern countenance. “Oh, Elvis!” she said, exasperated. “Come on,” she snapped, and led me back to the SCIF.
Back in the SCIF, the briefing began. The first presenter was an FBI agent wearing a tie, with a coat this time. Whatever he had learned at the FBI training center in Quantico, VA apparently did not include the fundamentals of haberdashery. Anyone who buys a suit knows that you immediately have it tailored, as the pant legs are way too long. Apparently this agent bought his cream-colored suit, with piping, and never sent it for alterations. The trouser legs were so long he was actually walking on the bottom of his pant legs. His presentation was no better than his tailoring. Presenting on computer security, it was clear this was not somebody with even a basic knowledge of computing.
After him, two Homeland Security analysts presented. They wore rumpled khakis with jacket and tie, and sported similar pyramid mustaches. They presented on SCADA systems, a subject I could care less about. Almost all of it was unclassified.
Shortly after my briefing, I learned that the OPM database had been hacked by the Chinese military. All the personal information about myself and my family is in their hands now. When I left Juniper, Cisco declined to renew my security clearance.
Some people hide that they have/had a clearance, as they can be targeted by foreign governments. Personally, I don’t care. What little classified information I saw, I can’t remember. You could waterboard me and I wouldn’t be able to tell you a thing.