Caring for Cadets: Info Protection Directorate offers training, streamlined clearance process
By Don Branum, Air Force Academy Public Affairs
/ Published January 18, 2013
U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- The Information Protection Directorate here held briefings Saturday to help two-thirds of the Academy's seniors complete forms required for Office of Personnel Management top-secret clearance investigations, which the cadets will need for their careers after they graduate.
The briefings aim to familiarize cadets with the importance of protecting classified information and to answer any questions cadets may have about filling out electronic questionnaires for processing.
The IP Directorate began a streamlined process in 2012 to help cadets complete security clearance applications. In previous years, the directorate sent air officers commanding and Academy military training NCOs lists of cadets who needed to fill out E-QIP forms for top-secret clearance, said Gayle Blue-Keyes, the Academy's director of information protection.
"We were working the list with (Cadet Wing Personnel), sending it to AMTs and telling them, 'You have this many in your squadron, make sure they get it done,'" Blue-Keyes said. Errors and omissions in cadets' applications sometimes created time-consuming hassles for both the IP office and AMTs.
Now, cadets assemble in groups to fill out their forms in the Academy's Foreign Language Lab. Information protection officials talk cadets through scenarios involving prior residency and foreign-born parents, Blue-Keyes said.
"When they're in these language labs, they all get the same information," Blue-Keyes said. "So it's pretty seamless for the AMTs who assist us, and it's seamless for the cadets who may have questions."
It also reduces the amount of time needed to process forms to begin investigations, Blue-Keyes said.
Time is essential, as cadets can't be processed for top-secret clearances until they've received their Air Force specialty assignments, and the investigation process can take from two to four months, said Jessie Rhom, the IP directorate's chief of personnel security.
"We have a very small window to get all these done once we find out how many graduating seniors we have in these specified (Air Force specialties)," Blue-Keyes said.
Adding to the complexity, the Academy submits between 650 and 700 investigation requests per year, Rhom said. That number stays fairly constant because of the percentage of Academy graduates who later become pilots.
"Can you imagine if we had to do, one by one, close to 700 applications? The errors that would occur?" Blue-Keyes added.
IP officials also educate cadets on the importance of protecting top-secret information.
"The greatest part about this (new process) is being able to talk to the cadets as they're about to fill out their (background investigation paperwork) and tell them what this means -- to them, to protecting information, to their careers," Blue-Keyes said. "We talk about what top-secret information means.
"We're trying ... to really get them to say, 'OK, this is my responsibility. Some of this information I'll have access to could cause grave damage to national security if it's released ... so I need to pay attention here," she added. "It really prepares them for the environment they're going to go into."
The responsibilities of safeguarding classified information intersect with the responsibilities of being an officer, said Lt. Col. Joel Witzel, assistant director of the Center for Character and Leadership Development's Honor Division.
"Our core values can be further broken down into 11 different virtues," Witzel explained. "Any one of those 11 could relate to safeguarding classified information. Even under caring for others, you have to realize that what you do could harm sources of information and could harm our country. You have to have the self-control to do that."
Witzel highlighted the importance of self-control not only in guarding classified information but also in one's personal conduct.
"If you do something in your career that would be blackmail-worthy, you would be compromised as somebody who holds a top-secret clearance," Witzel said. "You have to limit whom you speak to and how you speak to them because you could mistakenly let go of top-secret information."
While the savings in money and manpower are good, the education piece matters the most, Blue-Keyes said.
"That's our goal for information protection: respect for information and the measures designed to protect it," she added. "That in and of itself prepares our cadets to adapt to the rapid pace at which the information environment is evolving. What we're doing, if we're doing it right, has a positive strategic effect for the Air Force, the Defense Department and the nation."
Editor's note: This is the first article in a series focusing on how various units at the Academy "Care for Cadets." Subsequent articles will appear in upcoming editions of the Academy Spirit.