US Security Monitoring
May 26, 2016 2:59 PM   Subscribe

How common is the following scenario? Is it believable? If so, can anything be inferred about the people involved?

Two married couples, around retirement age, took a week's vacation, driving around the western USA. One couple were American, with the husband working in the defense industry. The other couple were European. During the trip, the American husband received a telephone call asking him to explain what he was doing (why he was traveling with foreign nationals). After the vacation he had to file a report giving more details.

To me, this sounds either unbelievable or surprisingly intrusive. Can anyone give more information on the likelihood of this happening? The details are secondhand, so I cannot rule out exaggeration, misreporting, misremembering, or simple fabrication.
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (10 answers total)
Phone call from whom? His employer?
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:12 PM on May 26, 2016

Off the top of my head, if the husband in the defense industry had a US security clearance, he has the responsibility of reporting significant relationships with foreign nationals to his company's security officer. If he forgot to report this friendship, his security officer could have been suspicious enough about that lapse to trigger the generation of an incident report.
posted by muddgirl at 3:14 PM on May 26, 2016 [5 favorites]

He probably filed a form indicating that he's traveling with foreign nationals (required for TSSCI clearance), and they randomly called him about it (accidentally hitting the middle of the trip itself). I don't think they are intrusive enough to actually find it out from GPS or something.
posted by miyabo at 3:28 PM on May 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

My dad had a pretty high but not super top level security clearance, and he had goons tracking him pretty closely, including after he retired. They'd drop in or call to interview him periodically, sometimes talk to the neighbors, things like that.

He didn't talk about it much himself, so I don't know about him having to file reports or anything, but I wouldn't eat my hat if he did.
posted by ernielundquist at 3:29 PM on May 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Fairly unrealistic. Yes, he has to report foreign national contacts as part of his clearance process, but he doesn't have to report domestic travel, and certainly doesn't have to report who he is spending time with during domestic travel.

Only way I could see this happening is if the foreign national was being actively, and openly, tracked by US agencies. That would be an incredibly short list of people - foreign leaders, etc. And even then, there's no reason his FSO wouldn't ask him about it upon his return.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 3:42 PM on May 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

If the report is true, and if he had a security clearance, and if he was overseas, and if he was told to provide notice he'd be on vacation with foreign nationals, perhaps he departed before getting approval. Or, perhaps the approval was slow in coming. Or, perhaps he didn't provide the notice.

The business of being in the U.S. makes me skeptical.

When people have security clearances, this is standard procedure out of the country. If/when someone finds that intrusive, they can leave. When they do, or when they retire, they very soon lose their clearance. They are still bound by their security oath regarding classified material they had access to; that doesn't go away. (One reason to be skeptical of tall tales from retirees.)
posted by justcorbly at 3:54 PM on May 26, 2016

This strains credulity. I would be unlikely to believe this story and I am familiar with the general US clearance world.

I see four options:

- There is some super secret high sensitivity clearance level for which the government does insanely intrusive tracking even on domestic trips with foreign nationals from friendly governments. I dunno I guess I wouldn't be completely shocked if the guy who currently has a USB drive with all the F-35 software on it is being watched. At the same time the US guy apparently doesn't know his reporting requirements or obligations under this posited super double secret clearance level? I'd rate this extraordinarily to implausibly unlikely.

- The European couple are known or suspected agents of a foreign power and already under investigation. Though in this case it seems unlikely they'd tactlessly call the US couple. I'd rate this extraordinarily unlikely.

- A friend or coworker knew about the trip and reported him to his facility safety officer or security clearance infrastructure. The security people are following up. The bit about reporting afterward is normal-ish. People with high security clearances are supposed to report close and continuing contact with foreign nationals. But it's more of an FYI thing, they don't judge you negatively for having some friends from France. I'd rate this unlikely.

- Someone is full of bullshit about clearances. I rate this very likely.
posted by Across the pale parabola of joy at 5:43 PM on May 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

friend of mine with a security clearance (and a very low general bullshit level) has minimal contact with his parents. Not estranged per se; they just have little in common and they don't get together much. He told me he was asked out of the blue about his parent's travel to China (which he wasn't aware they had done). The questioning wasn't hostile per se, but they did contact him to ask what he knew about their travel plans.

So there is significant cross-checking on travel, etc. with known associates of security clearance holders. Perhaps his european friends are on file as being KA of the clearance holder and because their passports were recognized as entering the USA, they checked up.
posted by randomkeystrike at 5:54 PM on May 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

Is it possible that they crossed the border into Canada or Mexico at any point during the trip? That might kinda sorta explain it.
posted by phoenixy at 7:39 PM on May 26, 2016

I really don't understand why this would be considered intrusive. There is a reason why there are security clearances for people who work with classified information and processes to go through to get and maintain those clearances.If the person in question finds it too intrusive, he or she should consider finding a new job that does not require a security Clearance.
posted by seesom at 4:14 AM on May 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

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