The Government’s Insistence that Chefs Might Be Spooks Is Holding Up the Cafeteria Line

It started when Secrecy News observed Sodexo, the food service company, looking for a chef with security clearance.

“Sodexo’s Government Services Division is seeking a strong Executive Chef to manage all the culinary operations at a high profile government dining account in Northern Virginia. The successful candidate must be able to obtain a TS/SCI clearance,” the announcement said.

Though it may seem ridiculous, the requirement for a chef with a Top Secret clearance exemplifies a significant policy problem, namely the use of the security clearance process as an employee screening tool.

To all appearances, a chef does not need a security clearance. Although the successful applicant “must become familiar with Sodexo recipes,” those recipes are not national security secrets, and a clearance should not [be] needed to perform the job of Executive Chef.

Nevertheless, a clearance requirement has evidently been imposed because the “culinary operations” are to be conducted in a secure government facility that will place the chef in proximity to secrets, even if he or she does not actually come into possession of any.

Secrecy News also noted that CIA personnel are complaining about the quality of their cafeteria food.

Yesterday WaPo did a story based on the discovery, blaming slowed hiring for food service personnel to the wait for security clearances that arose in response to Edward Snowden’s leaks. But the evidence in the story instead suggests that food service personnel, unlike the national security personnel who actually use their clearance, do not get a wage premium for having the clearance. Why go through the trouble of getting and maintaining clearance if you can make more in the private sector?

While the implication from the WaPo story is that these are all cleared jobs, like the one Sodexo advertised, there is likely another factor contributing to all this: the Obama Administration’s fight to make even support positions — such as the guy who runs a commissary on a military base — non-critical sensitive positions stripped of their Merit Systems Protection. After commissary employee Devon Haughton Northover and DOD accountant Rhonda Conyers had employment setbacks, they appealed to the Merit Systems Protection Board. But the MSPB found — and the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit twice upheld — that MSPB had no authority to review those employment decisions.

Effectively, the decision opened up 200,000 service personnel at DOD — any by extension hundreds of thousands more at other Agencies — for arbitrary firing. All based on the premise that a commissary employee might see soldiers buy more Gatorade and sunglasses and as a result infer information about upcoming deployments.

Both efforts — both the requirement that a chef that works at the Counterterrorism center have Top Secret clearance, and that service personnel undergo sensitive review — may be excused on national security grounds. But they’re also about labor, about expanding the universe of federal employees who can be fired arbitrarily.

It’s a recipe for abuse.

About Marcy Wheeler

Investigative journalist Marcy Wheeler wrote the "Right to Know" column for ExposeFacts. She is best known for providing in-depth analysis of legal documents related to "war on terrorism" programs and civil liberties. Wheeler blogs at and publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon and the Progressive. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit: How the Bush Administration Used the Media to Sell the Iraq War and Out a Spy. Wheeler won the 2009 Hillman Award for blog journalism.