Thursday, October 26, 2006

FBI: What's in a file anyway?

As I mentioned last week I finally received a copy of my 96 page FBI file through a FOIA/Privacy Act request.

I didn't make this request because I'm paranoid. Not everyone has an FBI file, and certainly not 96 pages worth. I knew I had a file because I had (or attempted to get) a security clearance when I contracted at EOP in 1999. I was not in the job long enough for them to complete my background investigation.

The process started with a security interview and filling out an SF86, Questionnaire for National Security Positions. This is the same form used for government and military positions, and the process is essentially the same. The form asks (for the past 7 years):
  • All the places you have lived
  • Where you went to school
  • Employment activities
  • People you know (or knew) well
  • Information about your spouse
  • Relatives and associates
  • Citizens of relatives and associates
  • Your military history
  • Your foreign activities
  • Countries you've lived
  • Police record
  • Alcohol use
  • Drug use
  • Financial delinquencies
  • Civil court filings

The whole process only looks for a few traits: (1) can you keep a secret? (2) is there something in your background or character that makes you want to job for the wrong reason (leak/manipulate information, etc)? (3) is there anything in your past that someone could blackmail you with to then leak/manipulate information on their behalf?

The most fascinating part of reading my file is trying to follow the agent's through process of how you answer those questions. It starts with the information you provide in your SF86, but quickly deviates. After all, if there were unsavory people or activities in my past, I'd omit those from my SF86 so the agents didn't find them out, right?

Rest assured, they will find them. They questioned people I'd never met (half a dozen neighbors and classmates) to see what their impression of me was. They talked at length with my fifth grade English teacher. It felt to me like every stellar interview sent them in search of two other interviews. Specific quotes were included, but the contents were in summarized report format to answer the dozen or so questions each interviewee is asked.

While the insight itself was stale, that kind of honest perspective from so many different people is eye opening. There is little resemblance between 1999 me and 2006 me, but imagine what it must be like for your neighbors, coworkers, classmates, people at work and school you barely interact with to describe you unfiltered and in complete detail. These people are told that you won't find out what they say, and are asked detailed questions about your affiliations, character, and if they think you should be trusted with state secrets.

Some companies do 360 degree evaluations on their employees, but I think everybody should get one about their character.

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