The Dodd-Frank financial “reform” inhabits a special dungeon in my heart because meditating on it alone is enough to inspire existential dread about the future of society. Thursday afternoon’s hearing on “Safeguarding our Nation’s Secrets: Examining The Security Clearance Process” inspired a similarly dim, clammy feeling. Two Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee chairpersons, Senators Jon Tester (D-Mt.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), spent most of the proceedings browbeating witnesses from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Department of Defense, and Government Accountability Office (GAO). Their incredulity was understandable.
Tester opened by observing that, “Today, there are nearly five million individuals inside and outside of our government who have been granted security clearances and access to our nation’s most sensitive data. 1.4 million hold a top-secret security clearance.” Edward Snowden’s leaks of NSA documents came up in the hearing, though in passing. If there was a whipping boy, it was defense contractor USIS. OPM Inspector General Patrick McFarland confirmed to Tester that the company conducted a “background reinvestigation” in 2011 that renewed Snowden’s security clearance. OPM Assistant Director of Investigations Merton Miller stated later that the company handles 45 percent of security checks. McFarland did not know who originally approved Snowden, but promised to report back.
OPM Assistant IG Michelle Schmitz told the combined subcommittee that USIS came under criminal investigation shortly after clearing Snowden. When asked if contractors under investigation continue their work, Schmitz replied it depended on the case, adding that although USIS was informed, she would not be able to comment further on the continuing investigation. As it happens, USIS released a statement yesterday denying knowledge of any criminal investigation.
Like other background check contractors, USIS was reimbursed for the cost of checks and given bonuses for employees with security clearance. Last year it also received $45 million of what Miller called, “office operation funds, basically.” That vagueness reflected uncertainty about the contracting system. The $1 billion revolving fund that funds security check contractors has apparently never been audited. McFarland explained that unlike other funds overseen by the OPM, his office could not use resources from the fund to audit it. Defense official Stephen Lewis explained that such contracts were removed from a “high risk” list after a reassignment of their management.
Lewis, who was representing the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, confirmed that 87% of security clearance cases lack proper background documentation, highlighting employment history as the most common gap. The follow-up investigation rate is low, raising questions about how the revolving fund is being spent. Brenda Farrell, Director of Defense Capabilities and Management in the GAO, noted that there are no standards or applicable guidelines for a security clearance process. Each agency must create its own. Individuals who are under investigation for falsifying information in background check maintain their security clearance and positions because they are presumed innocent and suspending them after the great time and expense of placement would be impractical.
After grilling Miller with fraud scenarios that seemed novel to him, to the delight of a grinning Tester, McCaskill was frustrated to learn that USIS had downsized to 999 employees, with only 35 OPM staff conducting oversight within it. “I want the numbers. I want a cost-benefit analysis. I’m tired of this idea that contractors are cheaper,” she exclaimed, adding that in her experience they turn out not to be half the time. “There is a whole area of government that the American people doesn’t know about,” Tester concluded somberly.