Who Checks Out the Private Spies? Not the Feds

Photograph by Colin Anderson/Getty Images

Ever since a former Booz Allen Hamilton employee leaked information about the National Security Agency’s secret surveillance program, much has been made of the government’s outsourcing of intelligence work to private contractors. According to Bloomberg Businessweek’s cover story this week, 70 percent of the 2013 U.S. intelligence budget is contracted out. Seventy-six percent of Booz Allen’s 24,500 employees have security clearances to handle top-secret material.

There’s a lot we don’t know about how people get clearances. But the available evidence is unsettling. In 2009, the Government Accountability Office found that of 3,500 security clearance reviews, almost nine in 10 lacked the proper documentation. A quarter of those were still approved.

The Defense Security Service (DSS), which grants the clearances, has been overwhelmed for quite some time. In 2006, the agency faced a backlog of 700,000 applications and said it had run out of money to continue processing them. According to a Washington Post article, the agency stopped conducting clearances and hired contractors to do the necessary reviews.

On June 7, the DSS quietly announced that it was going to scale back on oversight even further. The agency is suspending the routine reinvestigations it conducts to update security clearances, Reuters reports. Those with clearances are supposed to be reinvestigated every five years to make sure problems haven’t cropped up with their finances or behavior. Now they won’t be.

The reason for suspending the background checks—which came two days before Snowden’s leak—were the mandatory, governmentwide budget cuts known as the sequester.

It’s not clear how much these five-year reinvestigations cost taxpayers. What is clear is that the government has wiggle room when it comes to deciding which programs get scrapped because of the mandatory cuts. After news reports of alarmingly high levels of sexual assault in the military, the Defense Department quietly announced this month that it would cancel planned furloughs for staff at the agency’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. Employees would have been furloughed for 11 days. As the contractor scandal grows, the government will likely face pressure to bring back the clearance reinvestigations, too.

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