The public’s trust in the government’s security clearance process has been battered plenty this year, first by the damaging national security leaks of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and more recently by the deadly shooting rampage by a Navy contractor at the Navy Yard in Washington.
Then last week, another blow: The Justice Department announced it was joining a False Claims Act lawsuit against contractor USIS, the largest contractor for investigations of security clearance candidates.
The case, brought two years ago by a former USIS field manager, Blake Percival, accuses the company of systematically providing incomplete background investigations to the government, a practice known as “dumping.” Those background investigations are used by federal agencies to decide whether to grant or extend security clearances to millions of federal and contractor employees. The fact that the Justice Department joined the case is a sign that the department saw strong merit in Percival’s allegations.
Unfortunately, this is hardly the first time accusations have been raised about background investigations.
In July, Federal Times reported that the Office of Personnel Management’s inspector general’s office is investigating numerous cases of falsified background investigations. Since 2008, at least 19 background investigators or researchers have pleaded guilty to or face sentencing for falsifying background checks. The article reported that OPM IG Patrick McFarland was working on nine more such cases and said that a backlog of 36 others still awaited investigation because of a lack of resources.
McFarland told a Senate panel in June that a 2011 reinvestigation into Snowden’s background by USIS may have been faulty. His office issued USIS a subpoena for records in January 2012.
And in 2009, Federal Times reported that 53 federal and contractor investigators had falsified background investigations, according to OPM data. Of those, six were prosecuted for criminal misconduct.
Numerous background investigators interviewed for that article echoed themes brought up by Percival in his lawsuit against USIS: That investigators are under intense pressure to meet unrealistic quotas and produce investigations whether they are completed properly or not.
The pattern of problems suggest they are systemic and resulting from organizational incentives and pressures.
A key question is whether the OPM IG office has sufficient resources to adequately explore these problems as well as it could. Lawmakers should be highly concerned over this problem — and the security vulnerabilities it creates — and they must ensure that investigators are given the resources they need to find out how extensive the problems really are.