Tuesday, January 6, 2009

What it's like to be gay, out and working on secret government projects

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William Green was employed by TRW, an aerospace firm in Redondo Beach California, to work on a secret classified program funded by the CIA. As an openly gay man his career took a bad turn once the CIA decided to investigate him. Robert was fortunate enough to interview Green, now retired, about this time in his life and what it meant to him and his partner. Because of the nature of his work and the terms of his settlement, Green is unable to reveal certain information such as the kind of work he did. He has recently published “Rainbow Spies: La Conclusion Fran├žaise,” a work of fiction partially based on his experiences.

How did you come to work on a CIA funded program?
I was somewhat fresh out of college when TRW hired me. I didn't know it at the time, but I was being hired to work on CIA funded programs. Typically, the identity of the "Customer", who funds these types of programs is not known outside of the program, and disclosing it, would have been grounds for termination, at the most, and never being allowed to work on secret programs, the least.

As an openly gay man, what were the challenges in your work prior to the investigation?
As a gay man and out, I didn't feel that any harm would come my way if I was just myself. I met other gay people on the program, who were closeted and were very critical of my openness.

What prompted the CIA to begin investigating you after fifteen years on the job?
My partner, Chris, was being submitted for the same clearances. He gave me as a reference, and I was open about our relationship when I was being interviewed by the investigator (from the Department of Defense). Shortly thereafter I received several phone calls from some of my straight friends, in the company, that I was being investigated because I was gay. I realized immediately, that the CIA didn't know I was gay, and I went to the head of security at TRW, and explained what was going on. The head of security said: "I'm sorry you told me. Now, I have to report it to the Customer." If I'd kept my mouth shut, they would have reviewed my past investigation and let my clearance stand.

How did things change once the investigation began and was it common knowledge among your coworkers?
First, I went to my Laboratory Manager and told him what was going on and why. He was a very religious person and seemed to be in shock. I was a department manager, and I was immediately removed from that position and put on his staff to work unclassified proposals. My straight friends we surprised, but remained friends. Others were afraid of associating with me, so they cut off contact except for work matters. I was a golden boy to my Lab Manager, and I was on the fast track for promotions. That all came crashing down, and my belief that I was safe being openly gay, was a big mistake.

What happened after your clearances were rejected?
The appeals process to the CIA was a two step process. During the first appeal, I sent letters, written by friends and close associates, to the CIA showing that I was open about my sexual orientation. That gained me the first rejection. For the second one, they invited me to the headquarters in Langley, Virginia to undergo a polygraph test; supposedly to assure that I was telling the truth about my being open about my sexual orientation. The polygraph test is designed to ask questions that can be answered with a yes or no. The examiner asked questions about my personal and sex life. What I didn't know at the time was that he was making a voice recording of my responses. They were fed back to me with comments taken out of context that painted me as a sordid person who had sex with men two to three times a weeks for the last twenty-eight years and was involved with drugs.

How long did this investigation process take?
It took about three and a half years from the start of the investigation to the court settlement. Just after I filed suit, my manager wrote a performance appraisal saying that my work was so bad, others had to redo it. A review like that was the first step toward termination. I have no doubt that he received his direction indirectly from the CIA. I filed a grievance with our human resources department and my manager immediately folded and wrote me a good review. I remained employed with TRW until I retired in 1998, but I never received prime assignments or promotions. That was one of the prices that I paid for standing up for my rights. TRW decided that their hands were not clean during this whole process, so they compensated monetarily for the loss of my department manager position, on the understanding that I would not sue them.

Was it a difficult decision to take the CIA to court and why did you decide to do it?
When the last resort was to take them to court, I sat down with my partner of four years and we discussed the ramifications of pursuing the lawsuit. Worst case was that I'd lose my job and we would lose our home trying to keep up with the lawyer fees. My partner, Chris, said: "This is something you have to do, and we'll deal with whatever happens."

You mentioned that gays can now have secret clearances as long as they are not in the closet. Is that written policy?
The CIA guidelines state that homosexual activity was not a reason to withhold clearances, as long as the person could not be blackmailed. My lawsuit just re-enforced what would happen if the CIA did refuse clearances to openly gay people. From that time on, background investigations were conducted on a man or woman's partner in the very same way that they had been conducted for a person's spouse.

Recent photo of William Green.

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