I’ve held a secret clearance since it was granted to me by the government in 1994. I’ve renewed that secret clearance once--every ten years you're required to update your information to keep your record current. The 2004 update involved an extensive questionnaire on the computer and a short follow up with an investigating agent, just to clarify some of the details.
When my boss put in an application for me to upgrade to Top Secret, I had no idea what I was in for.
The questionnaire was twice as long as the secret one, with much of the same material I had already submitted. “Don’t they already have this stuff?” I asked myself as I typed out the addresses of the places I’ve lived. Not a whole lot has changed since 2004. It should’ve been stored somewhere, because what was the point of entering all of that information if it wasn’t being saved somewhere?
I submitted my responses and printed out a confirmation—or so I thought.
“Your information didn’t go through, are you sure you submitted the application?” asked the security officer.
“Oh, yeah, yeah.”
“I didn’t get a response from the system yet; I don't think it went through.”
“Really? But I could have sworn--”
Upon further inspection, it appeared that I missed a few questions and I needed to go back and fill them in.
“Mother’s naturalization number?” The cursor blinked on the screen; I wasn’t allowed to sign out without first entering these numbers. If you’re applying for a top secret clearance, it doesn’t work to your favor to have a foreign born parent or spouse, even if they hail from non-threatening countries. You just never know what Italy and Jamaica are plotting. And you don’t truly know where your relatives' loyalties lie, do you?
I called my mom and got a busy signal. Called again, busy signal. She was tying up the line scheming with the Italian side of the family, I just knew it.
Finally I got through and she read off the numbers from her naturalization papers. “Write it down and keep it somewhere safe.” She said. We went through the same drill in 2004. “Okay, I will.” I said. It’s scribbled in pencil on a crumpled Post-It on my desk somewhere.
I had the dates and numbers from my in-laws’ certificate too, since apparently if you move to this country when you’re 6 years old, you don’t get your own papers.
I finished the questionnaire and submitted it at last. Now all I had to do was sit back and wait for my new and improved clearance to come through.
“Some girl called me to talk about you.” My best friend said. I put her name and contact info in the online questionnaire because she could vouch for me, and apparently there was a female investigator already handling the follow up.
“We talked for like 20 minutes.” Said my friend.
She had given all sorts of information beyond the basic facts. “I told her you were my moral compass.” She said.
I smiled, imagining the investigator writing down “moral compass” onto her little notepad.
Months later I got the call for my own interview. “When’s a good time?” He asked over the phone.
“Oh, how about tomorrow…morning-ish?”
“Sure, I’ll be around.” I said. How hard could this be—an interview outlining the stuff I already told them.
The intervestigator was dreamy, with icy blue eyes and deliberately styled short brown hair. The only flaw in his appearance were the puppet lines near his mouth. I had at least 4 years on the guy and I didn’t have puppet lines. How could he be so young and already have puppet lines?
“Oh, let’s get you signed in and then we can go back to the room near where I sit.” I said.
Once we were through with the formalities, the investigator went through my questionnaire responses line by line.
“How long were you at the Lee Street address?” he said.
“A year and a half.”
Even though I thought I had answered everything accurately, I messed up the timeframe from one of my jobs. The investigator regarded me with a raised eyebrow.
“So you worked full time at both of these locations?”
I looked at the printout he held and realized my flub.
“Oh, no, no,” I said, attempting a smile, “Ha-ha, no, I wasn't working two full time jobs from December 2004 through May 2005. I meant December 2003 through May 2004. My mistake.”
He got into my military service record. I took my time finding a new national guard unit after moving from Texas to Maryland. Ten months, to be specific. I served what I believed to be enough to ride out the rest of my obligation and “retired” from my military career within a year of joining my unit. For some reason, my mind had this as two years. I even told the interviewer the wrong date, fully believing I hadn’t bailed out earlier. Then, when he was going over his notes, he laid out the alibi option.
“Are you willing to agree that all of this information is true to the best of your knowledge?” Here was my chance to set things straight.
“Yes,” I said, “but—“
The investigator raised an eyebrow and waited for me to finish. He was young but he was a pro at this. He should have been doing something more challenging, like detective work, or cross examining witnesses on the stand, not checking on people’s addresses.
“I’m not completely sure I gave you the right dates for my time in the Maryland Guard. I need to check my records.” I said, knowing this guy was now going to check and triple check everything I told him because I was turning out to be either a big fat liar or a big fat flake.
An hour after he had arrived, we rose from our spots and I led him to a couple of my managers so they too could vouch for me. I still had to provide a list of contacts to him, which I promised to send over email. I was still talking to a few people from my last job, but anyone from the jobs before that were purged from the mental Rolodex.
“What about neighbors?” asked the investigator. “I need someone who’s not a friend or a relative.”
“Oh, um…the guy next door to me—“
The neighbor and I said hello to each other and sometimes we exchanged a few sentences, but he didn’t know me and I didn’t know him. The only reason I had his full name was because sometimes we received his mail by mistake.
“Uh, there’s another guy a few houses in—“
“Right, because you’re on the end—“
I paused for a moment. How did he know I was on the end? He must’ve already looked up my address on Google maps and gotten a satellite image. Now I had a better understanding of how people must feel when they're being stalked. That was basically this guy's job—to stalk people with the purpose of finding out as much as he could.
“Tom.” I said. “I don’t know his last name, but his first name is Tom.”
“Tom,” wrote the investigator.
They really need to update their investigation methods, I thought. There is an online message board community of women I converse with daily that could tell this guy more truths about me than Tom ever could. Get with the program, I wanted to say, no one actually talks to their neighbors anymore. People probably assume that living close, in my case, in a townhouse and condo community is all the more reason to know your neighbors. They’re always there, blocking you when they park crooked, taking a shortcut across your lawn, putting out their cigarettes in your flowerpots. They live so close, they have to know each other, people think. I tend to believe the opposite. You spend so much time near these people that you don’t want to know them beyond what’s necessary to maintain the facade. You exchange greetings and wave when you’re in your car but it’s all done to make things appear civil. No one knows their neighbor.
I compiled my list for the investigator and emailed it at the end of the day. I warned a few people that I had given out their information, but at least half didn’t know. When my husband met an investigator (I have no idea if it was the same one) at a local Starbucks to discuss yours truly, he said the investigator was also coordinating with our neighbors.
“You told them, right?” My husband asked.
My husband gave me the look--the one that said "Oh, come on. What are you scared of?" It's the same look he gives me when I pass the phone to him so he can order Chinese for dinner. Someone must be aware that initiating talk with others is an issue for a segment of the population or else Papa John's online food ordering system wouldn't exist.
I knew it wouldn’t have taken me more than 5 minutes to go over and knock on their doors, or even mention it when I saw them in passing. I knew I should have said something so they’d know what was coming, but it just seemed so strange. How would I word it—I gave your name to the investigator because you’re the only neighbor I know, and by “know” I mean I've committed at least one part of your name to memory? I need you to do me a favor and talk to this guy so I can get a top secret clearance? Too late now.
After the fact, I continue avoid these people because what do I say? “Thanks for talking to that guy on my behalf when I didn’t even have the courtesy to warn you?” No, I’ll just duck my head and pretend not to see them, or if they happen to look, I’ll wave. I wouldn’t want to appear uncivil.