Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Proposal: Use the SF-86 to Vet Candidates

After some recent media stories about the health (or not) of our President's finances, I have seen a few commentators suggest that a President having hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign debt is a national security risk.  The idea is that huge amounts of debt make someone more vulnerable to:

  1. Blackmail ("We know you have this debt and will tell everyone, unless you do what we want.")
  2. Extortion ("We lent you lots of money, now you have to do what we want.")
  3. Influence Operations ("We'll help you with this debt, if you do what we want.")

Obviously, blackmail only works if the debt is not already publicly known, which highlights the importance of candidates for high office making financial information public, through financial disclosure statements and the release of tax returns.  Our President hasn't been very good at that part, which is bad for optics since it makes it look like someone could influence him, but he can easily correct that at any time by releasing appropriate information.

Less obviously, what amounts to a "huge" debt depends on one's assets.  If you're making on-time payments on all your debt and have plenty of money left over, it's much harder to influence you financially.  So if someone owes $1.1 billion, but without that debt is worth $3.6 billion – and I've seen reporting indicating this is the case for our President – they could probably discharge the debt if they so chose.  They might just have to sell a golf course or house or two.

People who don't understand this last point have been writing that "With those finances, the President couldn't even get the clearance to work as a White House cook!"  Although I may have just put a bit of a wet blanket on their frenzy, I do think political parties need to do a much better job of vetting their candidates, and the way the government and military already vet rank-and-file employees is perfectly applicable.

That way, of course, is Standard Form 86, from the federal Office of Personnel Management.  It is, as its name implies, a form.  A standard one.  A rather... long one.  The PDF runs 136 pages, and only three pages are instructions!  

The good news: You don't need to print, complete and submit pages that don't apply to you at all.  Many people only submit 50 pages.  And a good portion of the form is stuff you'd provide for any job, like education, past employment, and references.

The bad news: If you need more space than is provided, you print, complete and submit additional copies of some pages.  I know an investigator who was dismayed to discover an applicant had been particularly thorough (and had led an interesting life), resulting in over 500 pages to review.

Obviously, this is not the "background check" you have to pass to be a cashier at Target.  This is a background check for people who will – or at least might – have access to information that is at the very least sensitive to national security and things like that.

Everyone under the President has to complete this form.  The President has the authority to decide what is and isn't secret, and who can and can't be told what, so in a practical sense, he or she is "above the law" in this regard.  Historically, this has rarely been a problem, because Presidents have mostly been people that the overwhelming majority of Americans think of as at least honorable and trustworthy, despite any political differences.

But in the last fifty years, we have elected Presidents who perhaps might have had a hard time passing this kind of background check.  Richard Nixon owed the IRS more than $400,000 in taxes.  Bill Clinton was impeached after trying to conceal philandering.  Rumors swirled about past drug use by George W. Bush and Barack Obama.   And many people have expressed concerns about things in President Trump's life that they feel make trusting him with all our nation's secrets unwise.

Imagine if political parties actually asked about these things before choosing their nominees – using a form that anyone can freely download from the Internet!  And since the President isn't really subject to the same laws as other federal employees when it comes to national security, it might not even be necessary to put their form through the full investigative process – it could just serve as a handy list of questions that all candidates should have to address as part of their vetting.

Once some years back, I completed one of these forms, for purposes far more mundane than being President.  I think any candidate for President should be able to answer questions that I was able to answer.  Questions governing things like:

  • Personal or familial ties to other countries (10.1 et seq)
  • Connections to foreign nationals (19)
  • Foreign financial interests (20A.1)
  • Foreign real estate interests (20A.3)
  • Work for foreign businesses or governments (20B1-2)
  • Participation in foreign conferences (20B.5)
  • Travel outside the US (20C)
  • Police Record (22)
  • Drugs (23) and Alcohol (24)
  • Financial Records (26)
  • Involvement in civil court actions (28)
  • Ties to hate groups (29.5)
We could probably all save ourselves a lot of trouble in the future.

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