Update: Former State Department interns respond

Update: Former State Department interns respond

We have received several responses to the post last week about the State Department’s struggle to get security clearances for interns. The post was based on this National Journal story. Below are comments by readers identifying themselves as former interns. The consensus so far is that while the process isn’t great, the clearance is important.

Matt Born, who served as an intern in Athens in 2007, responded by email, and said that he applied in May 2006, was accepted in September, had his clearance request submitted in October and received an interim clearance in January 2007: 

I was a State intern a few years ago, and found the process to be opaque and difficult.  I was offered and served as an intern in the political section in Athens, but I can vouch that the clearance process took a significant amount of time and only succeeded after they stopped pursuing top secret clearance and opted for interim secret.  I’m on my third passport, and have spent maybe 10 percent of my life overseas, but due to the opacity of the process I don’t know whether that had any impact.

Regarding whether interns handle classified material, I can say that it varied.  There were times when I had to remind the FSOs that my clearance didn’t go high enough to do what they were asking.  There were three other interns during my stay in Athens, and some of them never saw a coversheet.

Commenter tbeau85 agreed that access is important:

As a former overseas DOS intern, I had access to classified cables for intern projects. No intern is "running" anything but your reaction does overlook the fact that in reality, "classified" material does not always include "sexy" news. It can be simply politically sensitive discussions–access to which is necessary if an intern is to get a full experience with DOS. Even not related to direct assignments, perusing the cables everyday was one of the best experiences as an intern. If interns could only read UC material, the whole experience would not be nearly the same.

alkenn93 says he/she also received an interim clearance one week ahead of time and that the process was "incredibly difficult": 

Yes, it was extremely useful to be able to read classified cables and to attend sensitive meetings, and I wouldn’t argue that interns shouldn’t have to be granted secret clearance. Still, the difficulty of the process only serves to weed out eager students with relevant overseas experience, and is not proportionate to the actual amount of sensitive work we complete.

Another description of the access provided for cleared interns:

For better or worse, many areas and documents are marked as secret, and I agree that not clearing interns would rather limit their experiences. Cables, NIEs, and other documents that have classified versions offer a lot more insight into the whole process and are a neat perk of the job. Certainly, the process could be improved — interns who applied nine months ahead of time should be told more than a week before the first day that they will, in fact, be permitted to show up for work — but the difficulty in obtaining a clearance shouldn’t detract from the value of that clearance.

Finally, commenter Guyver describes the frustration of never getting to start:

I was supposed to be a summer intern at State in 2006. I did not get my clearance till end of August, by which time summer was over. Funny thing, I was offered the internship because I have native-fluency in Arabic, but that’s what delayed my clearance, because I spent many years overseas in Arab countries.

Based on these comments, here are some further questions for discussion:

If State Department funding is increased, as has been indicated, will the problems lessen?

Are normal State hires having the same problems with clearance? Or is it easier because training and the first year doing consular leave plenty of time? 

Update: A prospective Foreign Service Officer (FSO) wrote in to explain that the clearance process for hires is just as long. She asked to have her name withheld as her employment offer is still in the clearance phase.

As someone with a conditional offer of employment as an FSO, I must note that one cannot be accepted into training without passing the Final Suitability Review, which requires both the top-secret clearance and medical clearance to be completed before the actual hiring can take place. This process takes months to complete.

I asked what prospective FSOs do for the months while awaiting clearance:

I think some people do drop out, but the process to pass the FSO exams is so arduous, and people have invested so much time and energy already, that I think most don’t. Most keep working wherever they’ve been working, or get short-term jobs, things like that.