The recent bombshell revelations about one of the nation’s most secret spy programs — leaked to the media by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden — are apt to spark a flurry of reforms, both welcome and unwelcome.
The most essential is to improve the security clearance process, which has been plagued for the past decade by a chronic backlog and delays that helped push security clearance times for tens of thousands of federal and contractor personnel to well past a year on average. In the rush to reduce those delays, there were many instances discovered of background investigation reports being incomplete and falsified.
To its credit, the Office of Personnel Management, which handles most background investigations, has made great strides in fixing those problems. Last year, the background investigation backlog was entirely eliminated.
But last week, there was disturbing news of more problems. OPM Inspector General Patrick McFarland told lawmakers that some background investigations, including one for Snowden, may have been improperly performed by USIS, the largest contractor in the background investigation business. McFarland offered no further details, but indicated his office is investigating.
Some will undoubtedly question whether contractors should perform the checks. But that is ultimately not the right question. Contract workers aren’t the only ones who might be prone to taking shortcuts if not held to the highest standards.
The more important question is whether conventional means of performing background checks are still sufficient, and whether, once granted, increased monitoring of those with clearances is necessary.
What makes Snowden interesting is that he was not an intelligence analyst or a collector, but an IT manager with access to a treasure trove of intelligence. That’s not a traditional source of leaks, but it could become one, and it needs the same level of scrutiny as a result of the access these managers are afforded.
Other potential reactions could be to clamp down on cross-agency information sharing, or to suggest contractors not be allowed to perform these kinds of jobs. Both would be mistakes. The many hard-fought gains made since 9/11 to improve info-sharing must be preserved for the nation’s intelligence agencies to be at their most effective. And Snowden might just as easily have been a federal employee; he had, after all, the same security clearance a federal employee might have had in the same sort of job.
What is needed, however, is this: a fundamental overhaul of our system of secrecy. We must pare down the vast volumes of material deemed secret. Intelligence people naturally wish to keep everything secret, but that is not only impractical, it is also incredibly expensive and, ultimately, counterproductive.
In December, the Public Interest Declassification Board delivered to President Obama a set of common-sense recommendations for transforming the government’s security classification system. They include streamlining the classification system into two levels (versus three today) and setting new policies to limit and reduce classification.
Such steps to streamline our classification system are sorely needed.