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H.R. 353: Security Clearance Improvement Act of 2021

Does this bill about “Q” deserve an A or an F?

What is QAnon?

After the January 6 attempted insurrection at the Capitol Building, increased attention turned to the conspiracy theory called QAnon. The ideology espouses a number of completely false theories regarding government officials, programs, and even Tom Hanks somehow.

Essentially, the group believes that a number of top government officials and public figures including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are involved in a child sex trafficking ring, which Donald Trump attempted to break up while president — but various events from the Robert Mueller investigation to several mass shootings were designed or engineered to derail or distract from Trump and his supporters’ efforts. None of these claims are true.

Many of the attempted insurrectionists on January 6 were QAnon adherents, though the ideology itself has little to no *official *leadership or membership.

Security clearances

The pseudonymous internet user nicknamed “Q,” who began the movement in an October 2017 post on the website 4chan, actually used the full username “Q Clearance Patriot,” an apparent reference to holding the Energy Department’s Q clearance for top secret information about nuclear weapons. (Since the identity of that original poster has never been confirmed, it’s unclear if they actually hold such a clearance or were just bluffing.)

About 4.3 million people hold government security clearances, with 1.4 million of them being top secret, according to a 2015 report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Who are these people, exactly? While many of them are career government employees and bureaucrats, more than a million are private contractors doing business with the government.

To get approved for a security clearance, applicants must complete the 136-page Standard Form 86. The form currently asks whether the applicant has ever held membership in an organization *“*dedicated to terrorism” or “dedicated to the use of violence or force to overthrow the United States Government.”

The question then is whether QAnon is dedicated to those things, exactly — or, indeed, is even an organization. The likely answer is that, even if some adherents participated in the Capitol attack, QAnon itself is not a terrorism organization per se.

Nor are they dedicated to the overthrow of the government. While QAnon certainly didn’t want Joe Biden elected president, they arguably weren’t trying to dismantle the entire institution of the presidency nor the system of American government writ large, as the word “overthrowing” would imply. In fact, just the opposite: they essentially wanted the American system of government to continue, just with Trump at its helm.

So for those who believe that QAnon adherents shouldn’t hold security clearances, the current Standard Form 86 questions seemingly wouldn’t prevent this from occurring.

What the bill does

The Security Clearance Improvement Act would ban Capitol attack participants or QAnon members from holding national security clearances.

Specifically, it would add two new questions to the Standard Form 86: “Did you participate in the activities occurring at the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021, or in any similar activity?” and “Have you ever been a member of, associated with, or knowingly engaged in activities conducted by an organization or movement that spreads conspiracy theories and false information about the United States Government?”

It was introduced in the House on January 19 as H.R. 353, by Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-FL7).

What supporters say

Supporters argue that both the ideology, and the violent domestic terrorism attack that the ideology arguably helped foment, render its adherents and participants undeserving of holding access to such secret information.

“Any individual who participated in the assault on the Capitol or who is a member of the conspiracy movement QAnon should be required to disclose this fact when applying to obtain or maintain a federal security clearance,” Rep. Murphy said in a press release. “It is highly unlikely that such an individual will be found by investigators to have shown the conduct, character, and loyalty to the United States that is a prerequisite to holding a national security position and viewing classified information.”

What opponents say

Few would dispute that violent participants in the January 6 attacks are unfit to hold national security clearances. Indeed, a number of police officers and law enforcement officials from around the country who participated have been fired or forced to resign.

But mere QAnon *adherents *who haven’t done anything violent may be a different story. While attacking the Capitol was most certainly illegal, QAnon adherence by itself isn’t.

Also, even among those who support the bill’s goal of weeding out QAnon adherents from holding national security clearances, opponents could argue that it would likely fail at that goal. After all, QAnon adherents who believe in the validity of its claims would answer no to the question of whether they’ve ever engaged with a movement that “spreads conspiracy theories and false information.”

Odds of passage

The bill has attracted one Democratic cosponsor, Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN3). It awaits a potential vote in the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

Last updated Feb 24, 2021. View all GovTrack summaries.

The summary below was written by the Congressional Research Service, which is a nonpartisan division of the Library of Congress, and was published on Jan 19, 2021.

Security Clearance Improvement Act of 2021

This bill requires the Office of Personnel Management to revise Standard Form 86 (Questionnaire for National Security Positions) to specifically include questions regarding an individual's (1) affiliation with organizations or movements that spread conspiracy theories and false information about the U.S. government, and (2) participation in the activities that occurred at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, or in similar activities.