Ever since Edward Snowden publicly accused the NSA of harnessing and abusing warrantless information-collecting power, politicians have been scrambling to identify errors in the security clearance process. Many are wondering how an individual could divulge national secrets, in what some consider an act of treason, if they had passed the arduous security clearance background investigation. The latest organization to be put in the hot seat is U.S. Investigations Services (USIS).
The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is responsible for overseeing the broad scope of the security clearance process. Considering the millions of individuals currently holding security clearances and the complexity of the process, it's understandable that the OPM would utilize contractors to assist in their operations. USIS is one such company contracted by the OPM, and it was they who handled Snowden's clearance investigation.
Now, the USIS is under investigation for lying about the thoroughness of their background checks. The main issue for USIS starts with their contractual obligation to conduct a second review after each initial background check. The point is to identify problem areas that may have been glossed over in the initial review. The Washington Post reports that "from 2008 to 2011, USIS allegedly skipped this second review in up to 50% of the cases. But it conveyed to federal officials that these reviews had, in fact, been performed." Eliminating the secondary review would have boosted their productivity, but some argue the alleged oversight allowed individuals a security clearance who would otherwise have been rejected, such as Snowden.
The gravity of the allegations are such that "a federal watchdog indicated he plans to recommend that the Office of Personnel Management…end ties with USIS unless it can show it is performing responsibly." Although this would be a step towards tying up loose ends in reviewing security clearance applications, the USIS handles so many candidates that it would potentially place an overwhelming load on the OPM.
Patrick E. McFraland, inspector general of the OPM, stated that "a lack of independent verification of the organization that conducts these important background investigations is a clear threat to national security." Senator Jon Tester, a chairman of a Homeland Security subcommittee, is actively engaged in addressing these oversights. "I cannot believe that this is handled in such a shoddy and cavalier manner," Tester said. Although there have not been any signs of the OPM revoking clearances based on the thoroughness of individual investigations, if new legislation is passed, the bar to security clearance may be set a little bit higher.