This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: WASHINGTON – In the wake of leaks about secret surveillance programs, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., contended Thursday that the government's process of conducting or contracting out background checks for security clearances is plagued by "limited accountability" and falsified reports.
McCaskill said Edward Snowden – the source of recent leaks about the National Security Agency's surveillance – had gotten his high-security clearance renewed after a 2011 background check by a government contractor that is now under criminal investigation for inadequate clearance investigations.
“Background investigations have real consequences for our national security,” said McCaskill, at a Senate hearing she co-chaired. The senator said Snowden “had access to this [secret] information because he had received a security clearance” following the background check.
McCaskill commented at a joint hearing of two Senate Homeland Security subcommittees, including the panel she chairs on financial and contracting oversight. The co-chair of the hearing, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., agreed with McCaskill that “we have a real problem on our hands if we can’t get this right. There is no margin for error.”
Last year, 3.5 million federal employees – including many military service members – and 1.1 million contractor personnel held a Secret or Top Secret clearance, which can only be granted after a background inquiry. The Office of Personnel Management’s federal investigative services arm handles almost all background investigations for security clearances for federal agencies.
At the hearing, McCaskill decried reports of “fraud, limited accountability and no respect for taxpayer dollars” at the OPM division and some contractors it hires to do background investigations.
She said the committee had “learned that at least 18 investigators have been convicted of falsifying investigation since 2007,” which she said “calls into question hundreds of top-secret level clearances, as well as hundreds of lower level clearances.”
Using a “revolving fund” structure, federal agencies – including the Defense Department – pay OPM for the background investigations that each agency requires for its employees and for contractors who need security clearances.
Those investigations cost the government about $1 billion last year, and are likely to cost $1.2 billion by next year. OPM spends about 46 percent of those funds on contractors that conduct investigations.
“As a former Missouri state auditor, I was shocked to learn that this fund has never been audited,” McCaskill said. She said the OPM’s inspector general has tried to conduct such an audit, “but the agency simply doesn’t have, or keep, the records that would allow him to do an audit.”
The OPM’s inspector general, Patrick E. McFarland – a former St. Louis police detective who later worked at the U.S. Secret Service – testified that OPM officials had denied his office the funding it needed to do a comprehensive audit of the revolving fund.
“There is an alarmingly insufficient level of oversight of the federal investigative services program,” charged McFarland. He contended that the “lack of independent verification of the organization that conducts these important background investigations is a clear threat to national security.”
Under questioning by McCaskill, McFarland confirmed that the Virginia-based contractor who did the 2011 background check on Snowden is currently under criminal investigation by his office for what McCaskill described as a “systematic failure to adequately conduct investigations under its contract.”
Merton W. Miller, the associate director of investigations at the OPM’s Federal Investigative Service, defended his agency’s performance as “flexible, responsive and cost-effective.” He said its background investigations have improved greatly in recent years, and said it would be open to an audit if funds were made available for one.
But Brenda S. Farrell, director of the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s defense capabilities and management section, said the OPM division had not implemented numerous recommendations that the GAO had made over the years.
In the past five years, Farrell said, GAO reports have called for clearer guidelines on which government positions should require a security clearance (and the level of that clearance); the need for better performance metrics to measure the quality of security clearances; and a more efficient clearance process.
McCaskill said she was astounded by how few of such recommendations had been implemented, and demanded that Miller provide a “scorecard” accounting of which suggestions his division had carried out.
“It’s overwhelming the amount of recommendations ... that have been ignored by your agency,” McCaskill said. She also probed the quality of clearances that had been issued based on falsified background checks by the 18 investigators who had been convicted. “It worries me that we have this many criminal falsifications,” she said.
Tester and other senators at the hearing agreed that the process needs to be improved. “In terms of securing classified information, we don’t just have an external problem, we have an internal problem,” Tester said.