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Woman was denied top-secret US security clearance for being a close relative of dictator

<i>TommL/E+/Getty Images via CNN Newsource</i><br/>An unnamed woman was denied a top-secret security clearance this year due to being a “close” relative of an authoritarian dictator of an unnamed country
TommL/E+/Getty Images via CNN Newsource
An unnamed woman was denied a top-secret security clearance this year due to being a “close” relative of an authoritarian dictator of an unnamed country

By Haley Britzky, CNN

(CNN) — An unnamed woman was denied a top-secret security clearance this year due to being a “close” relative of an authoritarian dictator of an unnamed country, according to a publicly available document from the Defense Department’s Office of Hearings and Appeals.

The administrative judge in the case ultimately decided to deny the clearance in what appears to be an extraordinary case because the applicant is related to “an extremely bad and dangerous person, a dictator of a country that is hostile to the United States.”

More than 1.2 million people had top-secret security clearance as of October 2017, CNN previously reported.

The applicant, who is not named, is in her 30s and married to an American citizen born in the US, and has worked for defense contractors for several years, the document says. She and her family moved to the US in the 1990s when she was young and became US citizens; they are not in contact with any of their family still living in the country in question — referred to only as “Country X” in the document.

The judge said that Country X “supports international terrorism, and it conducts cyberattacks and espionage against the United States.”

“Applicant was born a citizen of Country X,” the record says. “A close family member (cousin, aunt, uncle, niece, or nephew) is the dictator of Country X. Applicant’s parents and their children, including Applicant, immigrated to the United States in the 1990s when she was young. They all became U.S. citizens.”

The family all changed their names upon getting to the US, though the applicant told the court her mother “still fears retaliation.”

The document say that the woman in question already has a secret security clearance and no concerns have been raised over her handling of sensitive information.

‘A model employee’

“This is a difficult case because Applicant is intelligent, honest, loyal to the United States, a model employee, and a current clearance holder with no evidence of any security problems,” the administrative judge on the case, Edward Loughran, wrote in the document. “She credibly testified that her connections to Country X and its dictator could not be used to coerce or intimidate her into revealing classified information.”

“There is nothing about her that makes her anything less than a perfect candidate for a security clearance except her family connections to a dictator, Loughran said.

Administrative decisions on security clearance eligibility are regularly posted publicly by the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals.

Dr. Marek Posard, a military sociologist at the RAND Corporation, told CNN the information in the records suggested the person in question could be from North Korea.

“It sounds like this is Kim Jong Un’s cousin,” Posard said. “The thing is, they mention a dictator and state terrorism. Only four countries are on the state terrorism list — two are involved in cyber, and one is particularly retaliatory, which is the DPRK (North Korea).”

Currently, the four countries listed by the US as sponsors of state terrorism are Cuba, North Korea, Iran, and Syria.

The Washington post reported in 2016 that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s aunt and her three children immigrated to the US in 1998. The judge who made the final decision said in the document that Country X “considers people who leave their country to be traitors, and the country has taken retaliatory actions against some of them.”

The application for clearance came to Loughran in October 2023, and the case was ultimately decided in January. The records are intentionally vague with details regarding the applicant and her family, as Loughran notes it is “impossible to be too specific about Applicant and her family without exposing her identity.”

Judge noted ‘undivided loyalty’ to US

Posard noted that the judge is “very careful not to trash the applicant” in the document. Indeed, Loughran emphasized repeatedly that there was no reason to question the applicant’s loyalties to the US — she expressed “her undivided loyalty and allegiance to the United States,” the records say. Loughran also notes that he has an “extremely favorable view of Applicant as a person.”

“Applicant submitted letters attesting to her excellent job performance and strong moral character. She is praised for her trustworthiness, professionalism, reliability, and discretion in the handling of national security information. She is recommended for a security clearance … She is a good person who happens to be related to an extremely bad and dangerous person, a dictator of a country that is hostile to the United States,” Loughran wrote.

Posard also noted that it’s not particularly surprising that the woman was previously granted secret clearance, saying circumstances may have changed in the intervening period including the geopolitical situation.

“One thing people forget is it’s not like you get the keys to the kingdom,” Posard said of a secret clearance, which is the second lowest level security clearance available.  In October 2017, more than 2.8 million people had security clearances — more than 1.6 million of them had confidential or secret clearance, and nearly 1.2 million had access to top secret information.

Ultimately, Loughran declined her eligibility request for a top-secret clearance on the terms that her connection to the dictator “creates a potential conflict of interest and a heightened risk of foreign exploitation, inducement, manipulation, pressure, and coercion.”

Posard said the rejection likely has “nothing to do with this young woman,” but is due to the level of risk the US is willing to accept with giving her a clearance.

“It’s not just the risk to the individual, it’s also their distant social network … Sometimes when we think about the clearance process, it’s not that something is wrong with you as an individual, it’s that a risk could be created through your network that could be exploited in ways we don’t think about,” he said.

“It’s no fault of her own,” he added, “but if the DPRK wants to exploit that … that’s the kind of stuff we have to be thinking about ahead of time.”

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