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4th Circuit leaves security-clearance questions up to agencies

RICHMOND, Va. — Decisions on whether to grant employees security clearance should be left up to the agencies assessing national security risks — not the courts — a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.

A panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s decision dismissing a 2011 lawsuit filed by Mahmoud Hegab of Alexandria. Hegab lost his top security clearance when he got married because the secretive government security agency he worked for was concerned about his wife’s religious and political activities.

Hegab worked as a budget analyst at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency at Fort Belvoir. That clearance was revoked in November 2010 after his marriage because NGA officials told him they were concerned about his wife’s schooling at the Islamic Saudi Academy, a private school in northern Virginia, according to his lawsuit.

NGA officials also cited her employment with an Islamic charity, Alexandria-based Islamic Relief USA, as a reason for revoking the clearance, the lawsuit alleges.

Also identified as cause for concern was his wife’s participation in a 2003 anti-war rally in Washington sponsored by the ANSWER coalition, a left-wing group that has worked at times in conjunction with Palestinian activists. NGA also cited her time at George Mason University, when she served as president of a student group called Students for Justice in Palestine.

Officials at NGA — which employs 16,000 workers supplying satellite data and other imagery to the military — did not respond to an email seeking comment. All of its employees are required to have a top secret clearance due to the nature of the agency’s work.

In the lawsuit, Hegab’s lawyer, Sheldon Cohen, wrote that “the revocation of plaintiff’s security clearance … was based solely on plaintiff’s wife’s religion, Islam, her constitutionally protected speech, and her association with … an Islamic faith-based organization.”

Cohen did not respond to an email requesting comment.

In its ruling, the court said it lacked jurisdiction to review the claims.

“This case thus raises the issue of where to draw the line, if there is such a line, between the political question of reviewing themerits of a security clearance decision and the judicial question of whether an Executive Branch agency violated an individual’s constitutional rights when denying or revoking his or her security clearance,” the court wrote.

It ruled that the decision whether to trust an employee with secret information should rest with the agency head “charged with the protection of classified information.”

Hegab’s claims that his constitutional rights were violated were based solely on his disagreement with the agency’s conclusion that his ties posed a security risk, the court said.

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