Analysis If the latest reports are true and Chinese hackers have managed to pilfer as much data about US government employees in sensitive positions as is thought, the Obama administration may be headed for a serious intelligence crisis.
According to an Associated Press report on Friday, hackers linked to China may have compromised databases containing information related to Standard Form 86, a questionnaire the US government gives to anyone who applies for a job that requires security clearance.
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Not that the government relies on the answers you give. If you're applying for a top security job, expect the government to run a thorough background check on you. Assume it's going to find out everything. But the principle of Standard Form 86 is: You go first. Tell us everything.
And by "everything," we really mean everything. Where were you born? Where did you go to school? Where have you worked? And that's just the beginning. By the time you're done with all 127 pages of the form [PDF], there's really very little that you haven't revealed about yourself.
If all of this information is now in the hands of a foreign government, virtually every person working in intelligence or national security for the US government could be subject to blackmail, coercion, or worse.
What's on the form
Do you have any passports, or have you ever had any? In what country were they issued, and what are the numbers? And while we're at it, if the country of origin wasn't the US, do you mind explaining how you acquired these non-US passports?
Speaking of which, where have you lived? You'll need to provide the addresses of anywhere you've had a residence in the past 10 years – particularly if it was overseas – and you'll need to provide the name and contact information of a neighbor or someone else who can verify that you lived there.
Come to think of it, you'll need to provide detailed contact information – including home address, phone number, email address, and so on – of three people who know you well, no matter where you've lived. Not that the government doesn't trust you. It's just being thorough.
Are you married? Have you ever been? Let's not mince words, here – "do you presently reside with a cohabitant"? The government will need to know the details, including name, address, and so on.
And how about relatives? Who are they, what's the relationship, and where do they live? That includes step-siblings, foster parents, in-laws, and so on. Don't worry, it's just the US government who's asking – it's not like it's going to tell anyone else. Everything is held in the strictest confidence – until China hacks the database, that is.
And while you're at it, just go ahead and list the names, addresses, and other contact information for anybody whom you're in contact with overseas. For example, let's say you're in contact with a business associate in China. You'll want to put that down on the form.
Have you ever received any kind of government benefits from a non-US country, like financial aid or college loans? Or to turn the tables, have you ever provided any kind of financial support for someone outside the US? Names and contact info, please.
Also, what about foreign jobs? Has anyone overseas offered you one? Asked you to work as a consultant, maybe? Don't worry, we're not talking about your whole life here. The government only cares about the past seven years.
Look, let's just say if you've ever left the country in the last seven years, you'll want to put that on the form. And if you met any dodgy people while you were away – like police, military, or members of foreign intelligence organizations – you'll want to explain that, too.
And there's more
Have you ever served in the military? Whose military? And how'd that work out for you? Were you honorably discharged or was it something else? Ever been to military court?
And how about the civilian courts and police? Have you ever been arrested for anything in the last seven years? Been charged? Cited? Issued a ticket? And by the way, if the offense involved drugs or alcohol in any way, there's an extra box for you to tick.
While we're on the subject, how would you describe your relationship with drugs and alcohol? Have you ever used any? The form has boxes for you to tick to explain what. Have you ever received counseling or treatment? More boxes. Or how about this: Have you ever been advised to seek counseling or treatment? Let's get it all on the table.
"Has your use of alcohol had a negative impact on your work performance, your professional or personal relationships, your finances, or resulted in intervention by law enforcement/public safety personnel?" Tell the truth.
And in a general sense, how do you feel? Not that the government wants to poke into your mental health – "mental health counseling in and of itself is not a reason to revoke or deny eligibility for access to classified information or for a sensitive position," the form helpfully explains – but no, seriously, have you ever received mental or emotional health treatment? The government would like to know the name and address of your doctor, if so.
And what about money? Have you ever filed for bankruptcy protection? Had problems with gambling? What kind of numbers are we talking about, here? Just curious. Did you pay off your debts? And who were those creditors? Names and addresses, please. And just to be thorough, make sure you list any financial problems due to credit card debts, missed alimony payments, court judgments, liens, tax debts, or anything like that.
Ever had property foreclosed or repossessed? Ever been evicted? Defaulted on a loan? Had bills or debts turned over to a collection agency? Had your wages garnished? Form 86 has boxes for everything.
And the government is particularly interested in your use of information technology systems, which it defines as "all related computer hardware, software, firmware, and data used for the communication, transmission, processing, manipulation, storage or protection of information." If during the past seven years you've accessed any systems without authorization, modified or denied others access to data that you shouldn't have, or installed or used systems that were prohibited, you have a lot of explaining to do.
Finally, when all is said and done, are you a terrorist? No, seriously, there are boxes for Yes and No. And then more boxes. Have you ever tried to overthrow the US government by force or violence? Just asking. Got friends who have? Go ahead and list their contact information.
The point is, every single person who has ever seriously applied for a position of national security significance in the US federal government has answered these questions, and they are expected to have answered them truthfully. And all of that information is on file in the Standard Form 86 database, which authorities believe has been accessed by hackers with ties to the Chinese government.
The only logical assumption to make is that every single person in the US who has some sort of connection to the intelligence community has been compromised, and no amount of ex post facto countermeasures will ever get all of the cookies back in the jar.
It's a dark day for US intelligence, and much will depend on how the Obama administration responds to the crisis. ®