It happens after every spy scandal, or inadvertent disclosure of classified material.  Congress passes a new law aimed at fixing the breach, the bureaucracy implements it, and….nothing really changes. 

The latest example of this trend can be found in the pages of Government Executive (h/t: Chief Buddy).  One year after Edward Snowden leaked some of our intelligence “crown jewels” to the media–and his new friends in Beijing and Moscow–we discover that the process of awarding security clearances is as screwed up as ever:

“The three main companies performing employee security clearance checks for the Office of Personnel Management need to improve their case reviews and training to curb the number of investigations being closed prematurely, a watchdog said on Thursday.

The largest contractor, USIS, along with CACI and KSG, allow too many background check files to be submitted without review due to poor controls and staff training, according to a final audit dated June 4 by OPM’s Assistant Inspector General for Audits Michael Esser.

One contractor completed 15,152 background investigation reviews in one month, the bulk within minutes of each other on different days, the IG said. At least 17 investigation reports were not reviewed by the contractor in charge before being sent to OPM.”

You don’t need to be a Defense Security Service agent, or an investigator at OPM to see what’s going on here.  The three contracting firms, under pressure to reduce backlogs of pending clearance investigations (for new personnel) and periodic updates (for those who already have clearances) is simply rubber-stamping background investigations, with little regard for what was discovered during that process.  When you’re “completing” over 15,000 background investigation reviews in a few minutes, it’s clear that contractors are pencil-whipping a lot of candidates through the system. 

If you’ve ever held a clearance, you know the background investigation is the most critical part of the vetting process.  After the applicant (or current holder) completes an exhaustive survey, investigators are supposed to examine all elements of the individual’s life for at least the 10 previous years–and longer, if necessary.  All aspects of their existence are open to query, including personal associations, family relations, finances, education, travel and military service, just to name a few.  Questions developed by the questionnaire or through the background investigation are supposed to receive additional scrutiny, and if deemed serious enough, they may prevent the individual from getting a clearance, or retaining one that was previously granted. 

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But that won’t happen when you’re closing thousands of investigations in only a few days, with little regard for required reviews and quality control checks.  According to the Washington Post, more than one million Americans have either a collateral (Secret) Top Secret or TS/SCI clearance, and with expected retirements in certain areas of the defense and intelligence communities, as many as 300,000 new applicants are awaiting initial adjudication, on top of current employees–and military personnel–who need to have their clearances renewed. 

Private contractors were supposed to ease this logjam, adding more investigators to the process and completing background checks more rapidly.  But some of their work has been shoddy, to say the least.  USIS, the largest of the clearance contractors, is being sued in federal court for fraud, accused of submitting more than 600,000 faulty or poorly-reviewed background checks over a four-year period.  In case you’re wondering, USIS is the same firm that conducted background investigations on Snowden and Washington Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis. 

Can this mess be fixed?  Congress is offering even more legislation, but we think there’s a better approach.  First, end the privatization process.  Take clearance investigations away from OPM (which has demonstrated it can’t handle the job) and give it back to DoD.  Expand the Defense Security Service and put them back in charge of clearance investigations.  The process was more efficient when DSS’s predecessor (the Defense Investigative Service) was in charge, and the same level of professionalism and competence can be regained with the agency in charge. 

It’s a rare day when this blog calls for expansion of the federal bureaucracy.  But in this case, we believe, creating cadre of competent investigators (based on the old DIS model) would eliminate many of the problems being experienced through privatization scheme.  And one thing: it’s time to end the “hurry up and get it done” approach to clearance adjudication.  Not long ago, it took an average of  six months to a year to clear someone for Secret material, and 18-24 months to grant a TS/SCI clearance.  With more Snowdens lurking out there, it’s better to carefully examine someone’s background, associations and beliefs before granting the clearance, instead of simply rubber-stamping a massive stack of background investigations to meet an arbitrary deadline. 
ADDENDUM:  If all this isn’t bad enough, there is at least one giant loophole in the clearance investigation process that remains open: social media.  Edward Snowden’s on-line profile included frequent rants about privacy and intrusive government, but investigators never checked his presence on Facebook, Twitter and other social media forums.  The Washington Times reported earlier this year that investigators are still officially barred from looking at the social media profile of a clearance holder or applicant.  The Obama Administration has stated it will test social media (as a part of investigation process) in the near future.       

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