The Trouble with Low Standards

June 25, 2013 Topic: State of the MilitarySecurity Region: United States

The Trouble with Low Standards

The Bradley Manning leaks could have been prevented with more careful vetting of clearances. Edward Snowden's case might be the same.


Since Edward Snowden has admitted leaking highly classified information about the government’s data mining, many have wondered how this twenty-nine-year-old employee of Booz Allen Hamilton was able to get such a high security clearance, one that allowed him to gain privileged access to this nation’s most sensitive secrets in the three months he worked for the defense contractor. They point out that Snowden is a high-school dropout who washed out of the Army in less than five months without completing any training. If it turns out that Snowden, by virtue of his background, should not have been given access to material, those responsible for allowing him to do so should also be held accountable.

The Snowden disclosure of course comes as another famous leaker, Army PFC Bradley Manning, is being tried for espionage at Fort Meade, Maryland. There’s some indication that Snowden sees himself as a fellow traveler of Manning; he has described the private as "a classic whistle-blower" who was "inspired by the public good."


But while we are not certain how and why Snowden was able to get such a high security clearance, it is clear that Manning should never have been allowed to join the Army, let alone stay in, deploy to Iraq, and gain access to the material he admitted to leaking to WikiLeaks. And it is clear that those who allowed this to happen are equally guilty.

At the time that Manning volunteered to enlist in the Army in 2007, the ground forces were having a very difficult time attracting enough qualified volunteers to fill their ranks. The American people, realizing that the invasion of Iraq was initiated under false pretenses, had turned against the war and discouraged their sons and daughters who might be inclined to join the military from doing so. Thus, to meet their enlistment quotas, the Army and Marine Corps lowered their physical, educational and aptitude standards, and began granting moral waivers for criminal convictions, including felonies.

The men and women who created the All Volunteer Force recognized that a situation like this could come to pass and prepared for it; after the draft was ended they recommended maintaining Selective Service registration so that the military services would not have to lower their standards, particularly in the middle of a prolonged and unpopular war. Rather, they could use the draft-lottery system to fill their ranks with qualified people.

But rather than risk a political backlash by activating the Selective Service system, which contains about 20 million men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six, the military and civilian leaders of the Bush Administration chose instead to grant one hundred thousand moral waivers, involuntarily extend the tours of people who had volunteered for military service by invoking stop/loss, deployed men and women back to battle without sufficient time at home, and activated National Guard and Reserve units more than the agreed-upon standard of once every six years.

When Bradley Manning wanted to join the Army in 2007, the military had not yet repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Yet he was allowed to enlist even though he was openly gay. Manning’s enlistment also violated other military standards in effect at the time; he had threatened his stepmother with a knife and had flunked out of Montgomery College, both of which would have normally disqualified him. Once enlisted, Manning’s inability to become a productive soldier was evident right from the beginning; six weeks after enlisting and washing out of Basic Training, he was sent to a discharge unit. One of his fellow soldiers said that in basic training he was being bullied because of his sexual orientation, and another said he was having a breakdown. Nonetheless, the Army voided his discharge and he sent him to basic training again, eventually giving him one of the highest security clearances, a Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information Clearance (TS/SCI).

In a harbinger of things to come, Manning was reprimanded in the spring of 2008 for posting three video messages on YouTube in which he described the inside of the Sensitive Compartmentalized Information Facility where he worked. Nonetheless Manning was deployed to Iraq in October of 2009. Before deployment, two of his superior officers had considered not taking him to Iraq because he had displayed emotional problems and been referred to an Army mental-health counselor and was seen as “a threat to himself and others.” But because there was a shortage of analysts, they put aside their concerns and not only deployed him, but promoted him to private first class in November 2009, despite the fact that he was persistently late for duty.

About two months into his deployment, in December 2009, after being told he would lose his one day off a week for being persistently late, he lashed out, overturning a table and trying to grab a rifle from a gun rack before he was subdued. Nonetheless, his access to sensitive material was not withdrawn, and the next few months he began leaking about seven hundred thousand classified documents to WikiLeaks. In May 2010 he was arrested and placed in solitary confinement.

Manning has already agreed to plead guilty to misusing classified information and could face up to 20 years in prison for that charge. Yet the military wants to try him on the much more serious charge of endangering our national security by aiding the enemy. Admiral Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time Manning enlisted and was arrested, argues that his leaks put the lives of U.S. soldiers at risk. Assuming that is true, did not Mullen and his fellow military chiefs also put the lives of American troops at risk by not activating selective service and lowering the standards for enlistment? Or what about those who reinstated Manning after he failed basic training or deployed him to Iraq despite his markedly aberrant behavior?

It remains to be seen whether some officials acted similarly with regard to Snowden.

Lawrence J. Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, served as an assistant secretary of defense from 1981-1985.