SpaceX Isn't Likely To Be Impacted By Elon Musk's Security Clearance Review, But His Role Might Be
By Alex Knapp
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s security clearance is currently being reviewed by the Defense Department as a consequence of smoking marijuana on the Joe Rogan podcast last September, according to a report from Bloomberg. The review isn’t likely to change SpaceX’s relationship with the Air Force, with which it’s signed nine contracts, but it could change Musk’s role with the company he founded.
SpaceX declined to comment on the report, and the Department of Defense has yet to respond to a request for comment, though typically the Department does not comment on individual security clearances.
According to Tod Stephens, an attorney at Armstrong Teasdale who works on security clearance issues, smoking marijuana could put someone’s clearance at risk. “A security clearance holder who smokes marijuana is significantly endangering their security clearance, especially if the drug use was broadcast as entertainment,” he told Forbes in an email. “Marijuana use continues to be illegal at the federal level. The federal employees who grant and revoke security clearances will treat even one use of marijuana by a clearance holder as a serious concern.”
On the podcast, prior to smoking the marijuana, Musk said, “It’s legal, right?” While that’s true under California state law, that wouldn’t be a persuasive argument, cautions Stephens. This isn’t the first time Musk’s appearance on the podcast has spurred apparent action from the government. The incident also sparked a NASA investigation into the workplace cultures of SpaceX and Boeing, according to a Washington Post interview with NASA officials. The alleged review of Musk’s security clearance also comes a few weeks after the Inspector General for the Department of Defense announced an investigation into whether SpaceX was properly certified to perform national security launches by the Air Force.
That said, SpaceX’s relationship with the Defense Department has continued unabated since that fateful Joe Rogan podcast. It launched its first payload for the Air Force in December, and in February the company was awarded an Air Force contract for three satellite launches totaling $297 million, making a total of nine awarded contracts for the company.
If Musk’s security clearance were to be revoked, that could potentially spell trouble for SpaceX’s contracts, said Stephens. “If a company is performing classified contracts for the government, the CEO’s loss of their security clearance can have far-reaching impacts. In the extreme, the company’s privilege to access classified information might be terminated, making contract performance difficult or impossible.”
From a practical perspective, though, it’s unlikely that SpaceX would be barred from performing its contracts. “The truth is the government doesn’t have many options,” said Chris Quilty, founder of Quilty Analytics, a strategy firm focused on the space industry. “In fact, they have two options: ULA and SpaceX. It leaves them very little choice but to find a way around or through the situation.”
While the revocation of Musk’s security clearance might not impact SpaceX directly, it does leave open the question of what his role in the company might be. Such a revocation, says Quilty, “could impact Elon Musk’s status as CEO and the degree that he can be involved in certain programs.”