Mideast edition, Sunday, July 15, 2007

WASHINGTON — Defense Department officials insist a proposal to allow some drug users, mentally incompetent individuals and dishonorably discharged troops to get high-level clearances is needed to simplify the current security process.

The provision, among thousands under consideration in the Senate version of the 2008 Defense Authorization Bill, was first reported last week in the political newspaper The Hill.

Department officials requested lawmakers repeal restrictions on the security clearance rules that automatically eliminate Defense candidates who have been sentenced to a year in prison, were deemed mentally incompetent by a court, were dishonorably discharged from the military or have admitted to being addicted to an illegal drug.

Defense Department spokesman Maj. Patrick Ryder said the Pentagon has not kept statistics on how many employees or contractors have been denied clearance under the restrictions, but said they are “relatively small.”

But repealing that language would allow that handful of worthy candidates to get security access, he said.

“The law provides for the denial or revocation of a clearance, even if a qualifying crime took place long ago and the subject has redeemed his or her life,” he said. “Individuals who have been determined trustworthy by national adjudicative standards are affected negatively by this law.”

The change would affect only Defense workers, and not other government departments. House officials said the request was made by Pentagon officials when the House Armed Services Committee put together its authorization bill, but the language was not included in the final drafts.

The Senate Armed Services Committee included the request in its draft of the legislation, noting that officials said the current rules “unduly limit the ability of the department to manage its security clearance program.”

But in its review of the authorization bill, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee blasted the move, saying it could lead to mishandling of classified information.

“We would be deeply concerned about the grant of security clearances to persons who have been imprisoned for more than a year or who are current drug users,” the committee wrote in its report on the bill.

Defense officials do have authority to grant waivers to candidates barred from receiving clearances under the current rules, but Ryder said that appeal process takes time.

“The repeal of these mandatory disqualifying requirements, however, would eliminate a few cases being forwarded for consideration under the DOD procedures for due process,” he said.

Senators are expected to debate the issue this week, and pass their version of the Defense authorization bill later this month.

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