U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was charged with 17 counts of murder last week, after allegedly shooting Afghan civilians in their sleep in a massacre that has strained already troubled U.S. –Afghan relations.
As analysts look to the cause and unpack the details one area that hasn’t escaped their scrutiny is the secret security clearance Bales held. It’s not uncommon for service members to receive security clearances, particularly prior to a deployment. The majority of both officers and non-commissioned officers and some lower-ranking enlisted service members will obtain security clearances as a part of their need to access sensitive information in the field.
So while it’s not odd for Bales to have possessed a security clearance some are questioning how he obtained one. In 2003 he was order to pay $1.3 million in damages to a couple he stole approximately $600,000 from while working as their stockbroker. After joining the Army, Bales’ financial troubles continued and in 2009 he defaulted on a mortgage.
Financial woes alone aren’t necessarily a cause for a clearance denial but the issue of trustworthiness implied by Bales’ financial dealings, coupled with continued financial uncertainty, would have likely set off red flags in regards to both trustworthiness, stability, and susceptibility to coercion. It’s certainly possible these issues were mitigated through the clearance process. Or Bales could have lied in his application, although it seems unlikely the problems wouldn’t have come up in an investigation.
The other issue at hand is Bales mental stability. Much like the recent case of Pfc. Bradley Manning, who released thousands of classified cables to Wikileaks, Bales is calling into question whether or not we’re paying adequate attention to the mental stability of our deployed troops. Multiple combat tours, financial strain at home and other factors can combine to produce a strain some may find difficult to handle.
There are really two issues at hand here – one, the difficulty in assessing a person’s motivations and character in a cursory investigation and second, the “clearance inflation” that has occurred due to the rapid advancement of high-tech, high level signals intelligence and other technology on the battlefield, which requires more deployed troops to obtain clearances in the first place. As the military looks to draw down and lower troop numbers effectively, they may look at how a clearable force ties into that matrix – perhaps issuing security clearances to all troops as a part of the enlistment process, and ensuring service members are clearable before they enter the ranks.