During a candidate forum sponsored by the Pompano, Fla., Civic Association on Sept. 21, 2010, Allen West -- a retired Army lieutenant colonel running as the Republican nominee against Democratic Rep. Ron Klein -- made a rather striking claim.
West was responding to a question about tax liens that had allegedly been placed against him -- an issue that had already inspired a hard-hitting ad by Klein.
According to a video made by a Democratic Party operative who trails West at all of his appearances, the candidate told the audience, "I had a Top Secret/Security Compartmented Information classification, that is the highest you can have in the United States Army. You don’t get a security classification like that if you have financial issues like that. I still retain a Secret security clearance. And I tell you, if you look at the application for a security clearance, I have a clearance that even the president of the United States cannot obtain because of my background."
We've already addressed questions about the lien (we rated Klein's ad Mostly True). But we wondered whether it was really possible for someone -- anyone -- to have a higher security clearance than the president. So we asked a few experts.
First, some background on security clearances. There are three levels, in ascending order: Confidential, Secret and Top Secret. There are many subcategories, but the only one that is relevant here is an elite category of Top Secret called Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented information, or TS/SCI. It is for people who have Top Secret clearances but who may, in order to do their jobs, need to know certain information that is especially sensitive, such as sources and methods of intelligence-gathering. A TS/SCI clearance allows them to know the information they need, but it is not a blanket clearance for all extremely sensitive information. That's why it's called "compartmented."
West mentioned TS/SCI in his comments at the Pompano Civic Association, though he got the name slightly wrong, calling it "Top Secret/Security Compartmented Information." To be picky, West would have had a TS/SCI clearance, rather than "classification" -- people have clearances, documents have classifications.
We inquired with the Pentagon about his clearance but weren't able to get an answer Friday night. Experts we spoke to said that it was plausible for someone like West to have a TS/SCI clearance, so for the purposes of this fact-check, we'll assume he had that level. As you'll see below, his actual level wouldn't change our conclusion.
Our experts also said that it's plausible that West would still have a Secret clearance today. Since retired officers can be called back to duty, and because many of them do consulting work for the military or for companies that work with the military, it's common for retired officers to maintain a security clearance.
But what about him having "a clearance that even the president of the United States cannot obtain"?
We see at least two ways to look at this claim.
The first is that West is saying that he had a higher security clearance than someone occupying the office of president of the United States. Even if you assume that he was referring to the period in which West held a TS/SCI, our experts say he's wrong.
"The president is the one who established the security clearance system by executive order," said Steven Aftergood, a national security and intelligence specialist with the Federation of American Scientists. "Therefore it is nonsensical to speak of clearances higher than what the president has. As head of the executive branch and commander in chief of the armed forces, there is no information in government that could be denied to the president for security reasons if he determined he needed access to that information."
John Pike, the director of globalsecurity.org, agreed. "This is a silly statement," Pike said. "The only clearance the president needs is the mandate of the people."
The statement is even more questionable if West was actually referring to what he says is his current clearance -- Secret.
"A Secret security clearance is the most commonly held security clearance," Aftergood said. "Almost anyone without a criminal record or serious financial difficulties can get such a clearance if their employment requires it."
There's one more possible interpretation, and when we reached the West campaign, they said this is indeed what the candidate meant at the forum. As a career military officer, West went through a rigorous screening and investigatory process in order to receive his TS/SCI clearance. President Barack Obama got his authority by virtue of a popular vote. There is no security process required before one becomes president.
If, in theory, Obama was not president and decided to apply for a security clearance, there's no guarantee he'd qualify for one. He'd have to go through a painstaking process, and investigators may raise any number of questions.
"The fact that (Obama) admitted to cocaine use, travel to unauthorized countries years before, and his associations with (black nationalist) Louis Farrakhan and Rev. Jeremiah Wright, he probably would not have been granted a security clearance," said Josh Grodin, West's campaign manager.
This argument does at least have a grain of validity to it. But we see some problems with it.
During the presidential campaign, a similar claim was floated by some Obama opponents. One chain e-mail alleged that "if Barack Obama would apply for a job with the FBI or with the Secret Service, he would be disqualified because of his past associations with William Ayers, a known (and unrepentant) terrorist." We ruled it False.
Pike said that the one thing in Obama's background that could raise a flag for someone doing a security check is "his unaccompanied foreign travel for an extended period of time." Still, he added, "the tender age at which Obama traveled abroad would almost certainly render this irrelevant, particularly in light of everything else he has done."
To the extent that West has already been cleared by national-security vetters, and Obama has not, we think West may have a small point. Still, even using this logic, West oversteps when he says that his own clearance is one "that even the president of the United States cannot obtain." We don't believe the evidence suggests that it's an open-and-shut case that Obama would be denied the kind of security clearance West had.
And that's the most plausible interpretation of West's comment. The other interpretation -- that West's clearance, either today or in the past -- was higher than any president's is ridiculously false. The president has the highest security clearance in the land. We rate West's claim Pants on Fire.