The former head of AT&T, Robert Eugene Allen, passed away in September 2016 at the age of 81. And while Allen’s 223-page FBI file is relatively unexceptional, it serves as a good reminder that telecommunications companies have been working on sensitive government work for their entire existence.
When you think of Top Secret security clearances, you probably think of CIA spies and Army service members working behind enemy lines. But even the most boring white collar executive might have a security clearance. And Allen had just that, holding a Top Secret clearance as early as 1975, back when he was Vice President and General Manager of the Bell Telephone Company of Pennsylvania.
Security clearances for people in private companies are doled out by the National Industrial Security Program. The program, called various names since its inception in 1947, has been vital to the public-private partnerships that have driven American innovation both inside the military and in spin-off products that make their way to the average consumer. Whether it was GPS, Siri, or the internet itself, the US military needed to involve private companies to get those technologies from the battlefield to your iPhone.
Companies with government contracts that are developing weapons of war, like Boeing or Lockheed Martin, need to allow their workers to have access to sensitive government information in order to do their jobs. And having a security clearance can sometimes be make or break for whether you get a job.
“It’s definitely a challenge to find people with the right skills and the right clearance. We’re all fishing from the same pond,” a spokesperson from Raytheon told the New York Times back in 2006.
But it’s not just the high end defense companies like Raytheon that need security clearance. It’s easy to forget just how vital communications networks built by companies like AT&T and even Microsoft or Apple are to the US military and intelligence community. Everybody knows that the NSA, CIA, and FBI are all tapped into the world’s communications infrastructure. But back in the 1970s (Allen didn’t become the president of AT&T until 1986) there was still a lot of very sensitive communications infrastructure that was being developed.
Gizmodo filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request back in September of 2016 for Allen’s file and just received it just last week. It’s nothing too astonishing, as it largely details the extra security hoops that Allen had to go through to advise the first Bush presidency. But, again, the file really is a great reminder of how intertwined the US intelligence and military communities are with big business in the United States.
The next logical question might be who in the tech community has a security clearance today. And the answer is probably a lot of people, including some of the biggest names in tech. Steve Jobs, for instance, had one.
From Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs (page 572):
Because of the sales to the National Security Agency, Jobs had to get a security clearance, which must have been fun for the FBI agent assigned to vet him. At one point, a Pixar executive recalled, Jobs was called by the investigator to go over the drug use questions, which he answered unabashedly. “The last time I used that...,” he would say, or on occasion he would answer that no, he had actually never tried that particular drug.
Many people here in 2017 like to think of Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations about NSA spying on American soil as the beginning of modern surveillance. But as we’ve looked at before, the surveillance of communications tools like the internet has been around since it was created. And it makes perfect sense, as high ranking members of the US intelligence community were the ones who helped build the damn thing.
We don’t know exactly what kind of classified work Allen may have participated in at AT&T, but given the time period, it’s safe to say he saw both the rise of electronic communications in war, as well as the construction of the modern domestic surveillance apparatus.
You can read Robert E. Allen’s entire 223-page FBI file at the Internet Archive.