How easy is it to sell secrets? Engineer's arrest shows weakness with security checks
NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — You come from a nation in the Middle East that's in the midst of upheaval.
You marry an American girl and apply for citizenship, study electrical engineering at a university in a Navy town.
If the stars align, you soon have a job building warships, complete with security clearance and access to a whole host of secrets about the latest generation aircraft carrier — information that's yours for the selling, if you're criminally inclined.
A federal indictment against Yorktown, Va., resident Mostafa Ahmed Awwad demonstrates how easy it can be to obtain that kind of access, and lays bare the weaknesses in the government's process for clearing people to handle classified information.
In Awwad's case, little has been revealed about the type of clearance he received or how deeply investigators delved into his background before he got a job at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, where he was a civilian engineer working on construction of the Gerald R. Ford, a $13 billion aircraft carrier being built at Newport News Shipbuilding.
Awwad, 35, was arrested Dec. 5 by undercover FBI agents on suspicion of trying to sell design plans for the Ford.
Clearances like Awwad's start with the federal Office of Personnel Management. Run much like an assembly line, the office handles roughly 2 million security clearance investigations a year, 600,000 of them for the military.
Experts say the system's background checks are routine and often barely get beneath the surface. Once the information gets delivered to Defense Department decision-makers, processing is slow, causing a backlog.
Red flags can be missed. The case against Awwad paints a picture of a former Egyptian national who had little trouble slipping through the cracks with the intent to sell military secrets to the Egyptian government.
Security breaches can have major consequences. Edward Snowden fled the country after using his top-secret clearance to steal and leak a host of National Security Agency documents beginning in June 2013. In September 2013, civilian contractor Aaron Alexis used his clearance to get into the Washington Navy Yard, where he went on a shooting spree and killed 12 people.
The incidents highlighted flaws in the security clearance system and have prompted lawmakers to push for changes that would add layers of oversight and accountability.
Among the questions that arose after last year's breaches: Is the government — and, in particular, the military — handing out too many security clearances? Are those who get them given access to too much information?
And how often should a clearance be reviewed? Alexis suffered from severe mental health problems that emerged after his clearance was granted, but there had been no oversight to catch that development.
In September, the Office of Personnel Management did not renew its contract with USIS, the contractor that handled the bulk of its background investigations, following a cyberattack that potentially exposed the personal information of thousands of government employees.
Some see that as a sign that the government is holding contractors accountable, but one expert said the action left a gap, causing even more backlogs and a greater use of less experienced contractors to do the checks. The Office of Personnel Management did not respond to a request for an interview.
Still, experts say the system isn't meant to be fail-safe. Security clearance is just the first gate in a perimeter that tries to protect U.S. information and technology. It's up to the agencies employing those workers to determine what information they can access with their clearance.
"There's probably ways that the system could be improved," said Nicole Smith, a security clearance attorney with the law firm Tully Rinckey PLLC in Washington. "Having said that, there are going to be holes in every system."
Awwad married a U.S. citizen in Egypt in 2007, according to case documents. He applied for U.S. citizenship, moved to the States and enrolled at Old Dominion University in 2010. He was naturalized in 2012, got his electrical engineering degree in 2013 and, less than a year later, got a job at the shipyard.
The process for getting his clearance would have been standard, Smith said.
The Navy sends a request to the Defense Department's Consolidated Adjudications Facility, which then requests a background investigation through the Office of Personnel Management.
The agency uses its own investigators or a contractor's to question the applicant as well as family, friends and neighbors, and the applicant fills out paperwork. For national security jobs, that includes a form known as the SF 86 — a 127-page document that includes a section of questions for naturalized citizens.
Once compiled, the information goes back to the Defense Department, where an adjudicator decides whether to grant or deny the clearance. If it's not clear-cut, there could be further review, Smith said.
She said Awwad would likely have been questioned in detail because of his ties to Egypt. But a spokesman for Naval Sea Systems Command, which oversees the shipyard, said that as a naturalized citizen, Awwad would have been treated like any other American.
Spokesman Chris Johnson, in an email response, said Awwad completed the SF 86 and was granted interim clearance until the Department of Defense adjudications office made its determination. That came four months ago, according to an FBI affidavit.
The Navy would not say what Awwad revealed about his background or what his current ties are with Egypt.
"That information is not releasable at this time," Johnson wrote.
According to the affidavit, the FBI approached Awwad after he contacted the Egyptian embassy in Washington offering secrets. Awwad is accused of handing over drawings and technological information to an FBI agent he believed was an Egyptian intelligence official, including where to fire a missile at the vessel to sink it.
It's not clear how much damage the revelations could have caused. One former top Navy officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his job is still closely connected to the Navy, said that tests show it is hard to sink a carrier and that it's unlikely Awwad's information could have enabled an enemy to do so.
The Ford is the lead ship of the Navy's first new aircraft carrier class in nearly 50 years. Scheduled to sail by 2016, the ship is packed with cutting-edge systems, from catapults to radars to electronics.
Obtaining that technology could help a nation with a developing navy shave off years of research and development, the official said.
In a Dec. 10 hearing in federal court, prosecutor Joseph DePadilla said Awwad told an agent he turned down a better-paying job with Lockheed Martin so he could work at the shipyard and sell its secrets to Egypt.
DePadilla said Awwad, believing that he was talking with an Egyptian intelligence officer, mocked the U.S. government for hiring people like himself.
"I don't know what is wrong with this government," he cited Awwad as saying. "They hire the Chinese. They hire the Russians. They hire us."
The Awwad case is still unfolding. In the meantime, he's been denied bond, indicted for crimes that could send him to prison for 40 years.