Five Disturbing Facts About U.S. Security Clearances

How does someone with three arrests, a history of mental illness and a record of military misconduct obtain a U.S. government security clearance? That is one of the haunting questions following this week’s Washington Navy Yard massacre of 12 people by Aaron Alexis, a former U.S. Navy technician.

There are no simple answers and many missing details. Yet what is known about the national-security vetting process is disturbing enough that Congress should move quickly to overhaul it.

Disturbing fact No. 1: As Bloomberg News first reported, the same federal contractor that vetted Edward Snowden, who leaked information about classified U.S. spying programs, also performed the background check on Alexis. The contractor, USIS, was paid $253 million last year to conduct investigations for federal-agency security clearances. USIS does more than half of the Office of Personnel Management’s background checks.

Disturbing fact No. 2: Based on what USIS found (or didn’t), the Defense Department awarded Alexis a secret-level clearance in 2008. It was good for 10 years without any reinvestigation. That clearance enabled him to get onto the base, even though he left the Navy in January 2011. He was also able to keep that clearance after multiple arrests.

Disturbing fact No. 3: Serious shortcomings have been uncovered in USIS’s vetting of Snowden, the former Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp. (BAH) employee who worked for the National Security Agency. At a June hearing, Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri said USIS was under criminal investigation. At least 10 background-check workers employed by federal contractors have been convicted or pleaded guilty to falsifying records since 2006. Eight of them worked for USIS.

Disturbing fact No. 4: As of last year, the number of people with security clearances was almost 5 million. Government investigators are overworked and underpaid, forcing the U.S. to rely on outside contractors such as USIS.

Disturbing fact No. 5: USIS isn’t the only vetter with problems. A Sept. 16 audit by the Defense Department’s Office of Inspector General of U.S. Navy screenings of private contractors found many flaws, including that 52 people with felony convictions were given unescorted access to Navy installations. The Navy’s vetter, Eid Passport Inc., relied on public-record databases that are out of date or incomplete, the audit said.

What to conclude from this sorry recitation? First, the contractors conducting security checks aren’t being monitored enough and, because there is little oversight, they may be cutting corners. The companies doing the checks, however, aren’t always at fault. Federal agencies and Congress need to tighten the requirements, starting with an end to 10-year clearances with no reinvestigation. And the Pentagon and other agencies must do more due diligence on their own, including random checks of the checkers’ work.

McCaskill is working on a proposal that would call for top-to-bottom reforms. She should look at whether privatization is benefiting taxpayers -- or cheating them.

USIS, a unit of Altegrity Inc., which itself is owned by Providence Equity Partners LLC, was once part of the Office of Personnel Management. It was privatized in 1996 as part of then-Vice President Al Gore’s effort to reinvent government by reducing the size of the civil service. Contracting out security reviews was supposed to save the government money.

The security-clearance system costs taxpayers about $1 billion a year. As Congress considers how to overhaul the process that determines who has access to the country’s most sensitive secrets and military installations, it should also step back and ask the larger question: Was the privatization of the security-clearance system penny-wise and pound-foolish?

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