Leak Case Highlights Troubles With Security Clearance Checks

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The case of Edward Snowden has put a spotlight on the large number of people who have security clearances: 5 million people in the United States have been granted the authority to look at classified information.

And 1.4 million of them have top-secret clearances, the highest classification.

Everyone with a security clearance has to undergo a background check. Those investigations are overseen by the federal Office of Personnel Management, but they are often conducted by outside contractors.

The biggest of those contractors is now under investigation.

The company, USIS, used to be a part of the government until it was spun off in 1996 as part of the Reinventing Government project. USIS conducts some 45 percent of all government background investigations.

At a recent congressional hearing, it was revealed that USIS is under investigation in what was labeled a "complicated contract fraud case." And the government says there may have been problems with a background check USIS conducted of Snowden.

In fact, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri said there have been numerous problems with background checks conducted by federal employees and private contractors.

"At least 18 investigators have been convicted of falsifying investigations since 2007," she said. "These convictions called into question hundreds of top-secret-level clearances, as well as hundreds of lower-level clearances. There are more than 40 other active and pending investigations into fabricated investigations, and it is possible that there are far more."

'Alarmingly Insufficient' Oversight

At that hearing, Patrick McFarland, the inspector general of the Office of Personnel Management, testified that most of the cases involved fabricating background reports, in which the background investigators "report interviews that never occurred, record answers to questions that were never asked and document records checks that were never conducted."

"I'm here to inform you that there is an alarmingly insufficient level of oversight of the Federal Investigative Services program," he said. "The lack of independent verification of the organization that conducts these important background investigations is a clear threat to national security."

In a statement on its website, USIS says the Office of Personnel Management informed the company that it is not aware of any open criminal case against USIS, and that the company has fully cooperated with the government's civil investigative efforts.

A Flawed Process?

The government spends about $1 billion a year to conduct background checks.

Scott Amey of the Project on Government Oversight questions whether it's a good idea for the government to be contracting out so many of its background investigations.

"At first glance, especially with the current environment, you have to say, 'No, it's not,' " he says. "Is this a process that you want in the hands of government contractors that are really kind of the first line of defense when it comes to doing a background check that generally can result in the employee getting access to classified information?"

And one holder of a security clearance says the background check process itself is flawed. John Hamre, a former deputy secretary of defense who is now president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recently had to renew his clearance. He says the process is a relic of the Cold War.

"They'll send investigators out to all of your neighbors to say, 'Does John Hamre live at XYZ location?' " he says. "Fifty years ago, people lived in neighborhoods and they interacted in neighborhoods, but that isn't the way people live in America anymore. But yet we go through the process just like it's 1957, and somebody living next door is going to know whether I have people that come into my house that look like they're spies. This is crazy."

Hamre says antiquated background checks should give way to 21st century risk assessment techniques. There are calls in Congress, meanwhile, to strengthen oversight of the security clearance process.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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