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Senators blast OPM over lax background checks

Oct. 31, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By JOHN T. BENNETT   |   Comments
Senate Holds Hearing On DC Navy Yards Shootings An
Office of Personnel Management Director Elaine Kaplan testifies Oct. 31 before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee about government security clearances and background checks. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The Senate’s opening gambits into security clearance reform indicate companies that do such work will lose little business despite concerns over the approval of two rogue contractors.

A Thursday Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on security clearances was a mixed bag for contractors that handle such cases for national security agencies.

On one hand, executive branch officials largely embraced the status quo and explained steps in motion to remedy problems. On the other, angry senators sharply panned private firms and the government officials overseeing them.

The hearing came a day after three senators introduced the Senate’s first clearance-reform bill in the wake of Edward Snowden, a former Booz Allen Hamilton employee, leaking highly classified information, and the deadly Navy Yard shooting spree by The Experts employee Aaron Alexis.

USIS, a unit Altegrity Inc., which is owned by Providence Equity Partners LLC, conducted clearance probes on both Snowden and Alexis.

That bill would only alter the clearance process. It would put no restrictions on private firms that conduct clearance probes for the Pentagon and other national security agencies.

The hearing followed suit, with senators offering only sharp words about private firms. They mentioned no plans to remove companies from the clearance investigation business, nor of placing new regulations on that sector.

The lengthy hearing featured staid bureaucratic boilerplate about “working groups,” “concept demonstration” and “quality control” measures.

But it also featured tense moments, with one lawmaker declaring companies that conduct clearance probes “off the reservation” and pointedly telling a senior government official her comments were “offensive.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., lobbed the latter charge at Elaine Kaplan, acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, who told the committee USIS and OPM never attempted to obtain a police report on Alexis from Seattle law enforcement officials.

Kaplan moments earlier informed the panel that the government only requires contractors to determine “the disposition of the charge” against any candidate for a clearance or a renewal.

In OPM’s view, USIS met that requirement, Kaplan said.

McCaskill, however, took umbrage, saying private firms and government officials have been lax in vetting clearance applicants and in renewing clearances for contract employees.

“I think there’s just a whole lot of box-checking going on,” McCaskill said. “The notion that you’re doing quality control is offensive.”

McCaskill opined that contractors “were off the reservation” because all they were required to do was “check some boxes” and accept payments from the government.

Many experts have said there were ample signs that Alexis was teetering on a thin edge.

“We are clueless whether or not that’s true,” McCaskill said.

She also used a folksy but pointed phrase when concluding her opinion about Kaplan’s contention a police report could not have been obtained on Alexis.

“That dog doesn’t hunt in this context,” McCaskill said.

The criticism was, at times, bipartisan.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, hammered Kaplan and other government witnesses for only being able to tell the committee they are doing things like “forming a working group,” and “having a concept” and “doing research.” Portman said more concrete and immediate changes are needed.

Portman criticized the officials for being “three years away from doing anything meaningful.” And even then, “it will only be [for] DoD.”

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