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Security experts question Army reservist's top secret clearance

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Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 03:08 PM

In Courtroom 14 B Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Virginia M. Hernandez Covington asked a question about the man who had just been convicted of lying to obtain housing at MacDill Air Force Base.

How could Army Reserve 2nd Lt. Scott Allan Bennett, 40, obtain a top secret clearance despite a previous misdemeanor conviction in 2008 for lying to government officials?

Prosecutors had the same questions and were unable to get answers. But former intelligence officers and those who currently deal with security clearance issues contacted by the Tribune say that Bennett should probably have never gotten clearance and that somebody somewhere "dropped the ball."

In December, 2006, Scott Allan Bennett told U.S. government officials that he was working with the office of the President George W. Bush and the State Department. In that role, he was helping a woman from South Africa obtain a visa to visit the country. He said she would be working for the president.

It turned out that the woman was someone he met over the Internet and that he created a job "out of whole cloth" to get her into the country, according to federal documents.

Two years later, Bennett was convicted of the misdemeanor crime of lying to government officials. Bennett obtained TS/SCI clearance – top secret/sensitive compartmentalized information -- the highest level of security clearance available, in October 2008, according to Army Lt. Col Gerald Ostlund.

There are at least three "adjudicative guidelines" used by the government to determine if someone should be given security clearance that should have raised red flags about Bennett, according to Evan Lesser, founder and managing director of Clearancejobs.com, an employment website for those with security clearance.

"Guideline B, which deals with foreign influence, says if you have contact or connections with a foreigner, you are at a heightened risk of exploitation," said Lesser. "There are two other guidelines that more than a few things here would have called out this individual as being a problem. Guideline E, personal conduct, looks at any conduct involving questionable judgment or dishonesty and Guideline J, criminal activity, says that any criminal activity brings into doubt that person's judgment or trustworthiness."

To obtain a TS/SCI clearance, an individual has to submit to a background check that delves into the previous 10 years of personal history, according to the Defense Security Service. The information is then presented to an adjudicator, who looks at the guidelines and determines if there are any circumstances that would allow, for instance, someone with a conviction to still obtain clearance.

Depending on how much information was known about Bennett, adjudicators, said Lesser, "would have most likely denied this person clearance."

The timeline, he said, is critical.

Bennett was convicted in August 2008. He was hired sometime that year by Booz Allen Hamilton as a contractor, though the company won't say exactly when.

Booz Allen Hamilton spokesman James Fisher would not comment on whether Bennett obtained clearance to work for them, though it was required for the job the company hired him to perform at MacDill Air Force Base in 2010, working as a counter-threat finance analyst at U.S. Central Command's Joint Intelligence Operation Center.

Ostlund said Bennett's clearance was requested by the defense contractor. Bennett did not enter the Army Reserve, where he served as a personnel officer with the 11th Psychological Operations Battalion, until four months after he obtained his clearance, Ostlund said.

Larry Johnson, a former CIA employee who also worked at the State Department's Office of Counter Terrorism, offered a blunt assessment of how Bennett obtained clearance.

"One of two things happened," said Johnson, currently a military contractor with TS/SCI clearance who frequently visits MacDill. "Either the folks who conducted the background investigation failed, or the adjudicator was negligent. There is no in between. There are no mitigating factors" that would allow Bennett clearance.

Pat Lang, a retired senior U.S. military intelligence officer who later served in the Pentagon in the Defense Senior Executive Service and at the Defense Intelligence Agency as the Defense Intelligence Officer for the Middle East, has a similar view.

Giving Bennett security clearance, he said, was "a bad call. It is a judgment call, but I have a very hard time imagining someone being convicted for lying about immigration status being cleared. I wouldn't have cleared them, if it were up to me."

In January, 2010, Bennett moved onto MacDill Air Force Base housing by claiming he was an aide to Special Operations Command chief Adm. Eric Olson and lying about his status as an active duty officer. Investigators later found Bennett had 10 guns and more than 9,000 rounds of ammunition without proper authorization.

On Thursday, Bennett was convicted of one count of making a false statement, one count of wearing his uniform without authorization and two counts of violating a security agreement by bringing concealed weapons on base and storing weapons and ammunition in his apartment without permission.

Bennett, who faces up to seven years and six months in prison, will be sentenced Oct. 25.

Even before Thursday's convictions, Bennett's job in the Joint Intelligence Operation Center made him a threat to security, according to Lesser, Lang and Johnson.

"If you already have a track record of lying to the government, what guarantee is there that you will not commit that behavior again?" Johnson asked.

"This is the type of person who could be coerced easily," Lesser said. "The criminal activity he has done puts him at risk of being exploited or manipulated. That is something the government is always worried about."

Lesser said that government agencies need to investigate how Bennett got his clearance, what information he had access to while at the Joint Intelligence Operations Center and what, if anything, he did with that information.

"It seems really difficult to believe that he did not have red flags from past behavior," said Lesser. "Should somebody be concerned about this person? I would say most definitely. He had high level clearance and access to a fair amount of classified information at a very high level. It seems like somebody dropped the ball on this particular person."


haltman@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7629

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