White House bars its own tech researcher for past reporting on Snowden leaks
Ex-National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden during NBC News interview on May 27, 2014. [NBC News]

By Danny Yadron

Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and security researcher Ashkan Soltani says he has been denied security clearance for his new job with White House

The White House has denied a security clearance to a member of its technology team who previously helped report on documents leaked by Edward Snowden.

Ashkan Soltani, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and recent staffer at the Federal Trade Commission, recently began working with the White House on privacy, data ethics and technical outreach. The partnership raised eyebrows when it was announced in December because of Soltani’s previous work with the Washington Post, where he helped analyze and protect a cache of National Security Agency documents leaked by Snowden.

His departure raises questions about the US government’s ability to partner with the broader tech community, where people come from more diverse background than traditional government staffers.

It also suggests that nearly three years later, the Snowden episode remains a highly charged issue inside the Obama administration. Recently some current and former administration officials said the former NSA contractor sparked a “necessary debate” on surveillance, even if they disagreed with his tactics.

It remains unclear exactly why the White House parted ways with Soltani. In December, Megan Smith, White House chief technology officer and a former Google executive, welcomed him to her team with an effusive post on Twitter that referenced Soltani’s account handle, @Ashk4n.

Soltani since then has been on loan from the FTC to the White House. He was in the process of getting approved for a clearance to work in one of America’s most secured office buildings. Soltani said he passed his drug test and the Federal Bureau of Investigation hadn’t yet finished his background check, meaning it would have been too early for the bureau to weigh in on his employment.

“This is something that happens from time to time, and I won’t speculate on the reasons,” Soltani said in a statement provided to the Guardian. “I am proud of my work, I passed the mandatory drug screening some time ago and the FBI background check was still underway. There was also no allegation that it was based on my integrity or the quality of my work.”

The White House couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist with the American Civil Liberties Union, said he wouldn’t speculate on why Soltani was being denied a job, though he did note that he published many stories that likely irked America’s intelligence officials.

“My guess is there are people who are never going to forgive him for that,” said Soghoian, who lauded Soltani’s technical acumen.

“At a time when the government can’t get cybersecurity right they deeply need people like Ashkan in the White House,” he said.

The move is a blow for Smith, the White House CTO, who has spent the past year trying to lure more pure-blood technologists to government. It can be a tough sell. Compared to Silicon Valley, the pay is less, the hours are longer and the cafeteria isn’t free.

Soltani, 41 years old, has been drawn to working on public policy issues since spending years as a private security researcher. In addition to the Post, he has worked with the New York Times, University of California Berkeley and the Wall Street Journal. In October of 2014 he joined the FTC as its chief technologist, where he worked on consumer protection issues.

He, along with his Post colleagues, won a pulitzer prize in 2014 for their coverage of the Snowden affair.

So like many techies before him, Soltani said he now likely will leave Washington.

“I’m definitely ready to go back to the West Coast for a bit,” said Soltani, an avid mountain biker. “I just wish I hadn’t spent all my money on suits instead of bike parts.”