Efforts by the government to fix a notable problem sometimes create a new mess that turns out to be as insidious and troublesome as the first, or even worse.
This is what happened when Washington attempted to improve the way its security agencies vetted hundreds of thousands of workers needed suddenly after the 9/11 attacks to pursue counterterror tasks and oversee heightened secrecy requirements.
Soon after its hiring binge began, the government’s ambitions collided with a creaky system for conducting the background checks needed to approve job applicants for security clearances. By 2004, the backlog of contractors awaiting approval had reached the size of a small city: at least 188,000. Complaints by federal agencies and job-seekers alike grew so intense that policymakers and legislators in Washington became fixated on finding a solution.
Some additional personnel were added to the investigations process, but Washington largely chose a different path that promised to be cheaper and quicker — shortening the time allowed for the reviews, by law. In its wisdom, Congress passed the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which required that by 2009, agencies must process 90 percent of clearance applications within an average of 60 days, less than a sixth of the average 375-day wait in 2003.
The government also chose to farm the bulk of its vetting work out to contractors, which generally are more nimble than federal agencies in growing or shrinking, and are practiced at luring federal funds by promising to cut costs. It relied in particular on US Investigations Services (USIS), a firm that in 1996 was calved off of an independent agency known as the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and quickly got most of the background investigation business before being snapped up by a private equity investment firm in 2003.
Nearly a decade later, the entire clearance system has been convulsed by two particularly notorious security checks by USIS — those that led to the clearance renewal of National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, the leaker of tens of thousands of highly sensitive classified documents, and the clearance of Navy Yard contractor Aaron Alexis, whose shooting spree there on Sept. 16 killed 12 other people.
It’s clear, however, that the problems are much more widespread and that their repair will involve somehow fixing an investigative culture — created by Congress and contractors as well as the executive branch — that heedlessly prized speed over quality.
USIS, which is based in Falls Church, Va. but owned by the Rhode Island-based investment company Providence Equity Partners, is the target of a criminal investigation on charges unrelated to those clearances, according to a statement by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., at a June 20 congressional hearing.
It stands accused, she said, of “systemic failure to adequately conduct investigations under its contract.” Michelle Schmitz, OPM's Assistant Inspector General for Investigations, said at the June hearing that it began to investigate USIS in late 2011 on a “complicated contract fraud case.” A federal grand jury launched a criminal probe and issued subpoenas to former USIS executives this summer, the Wall Street Journal first reported.
A spokesman for the firm, Ray Howell, declined comment on the allegations. But several former USIS employees said in interviews that OPM’s contract with the firm — which OPM so far has refused to make public — was structured to place a premium on speed. They said the firm’s income depended on how many cases it processed, and that it incurred financial penalties for failing to meet deadlines.
But responsibility for any clearance investigation mistakes would hardly be USIS's alone.
Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio, a former White House aide who is now the senior Republican on a subcommittee devoted to increasing the efficiency of federal programs, said at a June 20 congressional hearing that while problems persist in the clearance process, “most troubling, I think, is the pressure to meet timeliness metrics impacting the quality of investigations.”
Some of this history is likely to be aired at a planned hearing — postponed temporarily due to the government shutdown — by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, at which top officials from OPM, the Office of Management and Budget, the office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the Defense Department are slated to testify. OPM has overseen all clearance investigations for defense personnel since 2005, giving it a huge workload.
This summer, Sen. Jon Tester, D-MT, a committee member, introduced the Security Clearance Oversight and Reform Enhancement Act, which, among various reforms, would require OPM to fire or debar any employee or contractor who falsifies or fails to review background investigation reports. Since 2007, twenty employees have been convicted of such crimes and one more pled guilty, according to OPM, but the agency’s Inspector General Patrick McFarland said at the June hearing that he does not “believe that we have caught it all by any stretch.”
Reforming the process is now considered urgent, not only because of the Snowden and Alexis debacles, but also because the government is struggling to monitor the 4.9 million people who hold clearances, an increase of roughly 1.7 million people since 1993. Even as the U.S. winds down its wars overseas, the number of people with access to classified information has yet to decrease. The government is still in the process of drafting uniform standards to determine whether positions require a clearance, opening the possibility that many individuals hold clearances who don’t need them.
“Everyone with clearances has to undergo a periodic reinvestigation. The more in the system means the workload multiplies, becomes more expensive, and creates the possibility of flawed investigations,” said Steve Aftergood, who studies privacy and security classification issues for the Federation of American Scientists, a nonprofit research and advocacy group in Washington.
Clearing the backlog
Although the problems are seen as acute now, they have deep roots. Even before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Department of Defense was experiencing backlogs in clearance investigations, largely caused by inadequate resources and changing government standards. But after 9/11, “the intelligence budget doubled in size,” Aftergood said. “To spend the money, the government needed more cleared people, including more cleared contractors.”
Brenda Farrell, director of defense capabilities and management at the Government Accountability Office, which has published many reports on clearance problems over the past decade, said “the contractor workforce was waiting, in some cases, more than a year for a clearance. You had a situation where you had people waiting to work, but they couldn’t work. And the backlog kept growing.”
Bill Henderson, president of the Federal Clearance Assistance Service who until 2007 worked as a field agent and supervisor in DOD and OPM investigations, noted that contractors began to adapt in troublesome ways — they overstated how many employees they needed in an attempt to stock up on cleared employees, knowing it could take more than year to get clearances.
Tom Davis, former Virginia congressman who chaired the House committee that helped write the new clearance deadlines for federal security agencies, recalled that because of the backlog, defense contractors were paying a premium for cleared workers, which boosted government contract costs. “You had to do something,” Davis said, whose district was the home for many contracting firms. Government agencies “didn’t have their act together. I think everybody was frustrated,” he added.
The bill his committee approved imposed the deadlines in stages. By 2007, agencies had to make a decision on 80 percent of applicants within 120 days, but two years later, it had to grant 90 percent of clearance cases within an average of 60 days — 40 days for the background investigation and 20 days for agencies to make their decision. The act did not put deadlines in place for periodic rechecks of clearances, like the one USIS conducted on Snowden in 2011, but agencies pushed their reviewers to speed up those cases as well.
The workforce assigned to the clearance task expanded somewhat, growing from 7,819 in March 2005 to 9,421 in January 2008, according to a 2008 report by the Security Clearance Oversight Group, which includes officials from OPM and OMB. Most of these investigators worked for USIS and a few other private firms, rather than OPM.
It looked to many in Washington like a great success — a problem solved! By 2012, the backlog had disappeared and the average initial investigation was completed within 36 days. “We have no backlogs, are meeting timeliness mandates, and have increased automation,” Merton Miller, associate director of OPM’s investigations unit, said at the June congressional hearing.
But the obsession with cranking out cases had some negative consequences. According to a May 2009 GAO report, an estimated 87 percent of the 3,500 background reports DOD officials used to make security clearance decisions were incomplete. Miller said this was largely due to the difficulty of interviewing military service members deployed in war zones. The law’s 40-day investigative deadline “must be met” nonetheless, he said, so all probes “must be accomplished within that period of time, and then the case is closed.”
OPM gauged whether investigators were performing adequately partly based on the speed of their work, and partly by how often the agencies sent reports back for additional work to fill in missing information. Miller said at the Congressional hearing that, on average, agencies sent less than 1 percent of all the cases that OPM oversaw back to investigators.
But perhaps one reason the figure was so low, Farrell said, is that many agencies were afraid of missing the deadline Congress had set. “You send it back, there goes another week, two weeks and everybody was focused on this 60 day goal,” Farrell said. “Often the adjudicators, we were told, would just go ahead and complete the investigation themselves. Or [they would] think it wasn’t important enough … and skip over it.”
GAO recommended in 2009 that the OPM investigations unit measure how often the background checks met federal standards, so they could figure out how to fix the problem of incomplete investigations. But OPM, as of August, had not implemented that recommendation. “They do not have a systematic way to help ensure the investigations are complete,” Farrell said. “That’s what’s missing.”