Edward Snowden’s successful exfiltration of confidential NSA documents has proved that the background checks executed for government personnel in order to receive the needed security clearance are not foolproof. But how imperfect is this system?
Reuters reporters have took it upon themselves to dig through court documents and press releases related to 21 cases in which US federal prosecutors convicted special agents and private contractors for making false statements that led to a person receiving the security clearance when it perhaps should not have.
In these 21 cases that were resolved between December 2004 to March 2012, there were at least 350 “faulty” investigations: investigators saying they interviewed a person who died years ago, or having interviewed a person they haven’t even visited, etc. Some of these investigations were made for future military and US Treasury personnel that required “top secret” clearances.
And these numbers are only for the cases that have already been brought to conclusion – three times as many cases are still open.
The checks are sometimes performed by special agents for the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM), and sometimes by private contractors.
During the aforementioned period, 11 OPM agents were found guilty of having fumbled their investigations, and seven investigators working for USIS, a private contractor who did the background check both of Snowden and of the infamous Washington Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis (and former government technology contractor), were also convicted.
What’s interesting to note is that two of those USIS investigators botched some 50 checks apiece, and after all this it should come as no surprise that the company is currently being investigated by the OPM inspector general.
Convicted investigators usually decide to plead guilty to the charges and often get away with probation and community service.
In one case, an investigator decided to go to trial – he was found guilty and convicted to spending 27 months in prison. In some cases, the investigators could also end up getting barred from working for a federal agency for a certain period of tim (though this hasn’t happened yet).
But while the contracted investigators have obviously cut some corners by deciding to forge the information they included in their reports, the problem does not lay only with them.
Once received, the clearances – the “secret” ones, at least – last for ten years. And a lot can change in that period, an anonymous Senate aide commented.
According to the reporters, something may be done soon about these obvious problems, as the Senate Homeland Security Committee will hold a hearing on government clearances and background checks on October 1.