Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Devastating Betrayals Suggest Weakness In U.S. Security Checks

USA Today
October 1, 2013
Pg. 1

USA Today Special Report


Emphasis on speed likely hurting quality of investigations

By Peter Eisler and Tom Vanden Brook, USA Today
WASHINGTON -- In spring 2007, the Pentagon official overseeing the Defense Department's security clearance programs drafted a sobering memo to his superiors outlining concerns about who got access to the nation's most sensitive information.
"Tens of thousands of people with classified access (have had) no comprehensive background investigation, creating an insider threat, the scope of which is unknown," wrote then-deputy undersecretary of Defense Robert Andrews, who had been tasked with fixing the operation.
Background checks for lower-level "secret" clearances were taking nearly six months, and many "top secret" reviews took a year or more, Andrews reported. To fill critical jobs, the department routinely issued "interim clearances" based only on self-disclosures or minimal vetting, letting people work on secret matters for months, sometimes years, without a full investigation.
Today, turnaround times for background checks are down 75%, with most completed in just over a month. Backlogs have vanished; interim clearances are a rarity. Investigations and final rulings, sped by automated record checks and a new reliance on electronic processing, move at unprecedented speed.
But concerns about the "insider threat" are as high as ever. And it may well be that solving the old problems created troubling new ones.
Fresh worries about the security clearance system have soared to the top of the public agenda, fueled by two devastating betrayals. Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency computer tech contractor, used his clearance to steal and leak records on the nation's most sensitive surveillance programs; Aaron Alexis, a federal IT contractor, used his to smuggle a shotgun into the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., and massacre a dozen public servants.
Both slid through their background checks with ease. Both were vetted by a government contractor that has been targeted in investigations of fraud by background investigators who did incomplete reviews on people they were supposed to check out. And both appear to have benefited from a clearance system that promotes speed over scrupulousness.
The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs plans to hold a hearing at which lawmakers will demand to know how deep the problems run -- and how they can be fixed.
"Are we going to be able to prevent another Snowden and another tragedy like the Navy Yard shooting? I don't know that we will be able to prevent all of them, but we owe it to the American people to at least have a system that's capable of doing some kind of meaningful screening," says Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a member of the committee. "The system ought to be good enough to revoke access to military facilities for someone (like Alexis) who … was reporting that he was hearing voices and being attacked by microwaves."
Growing concerns
More than 95% of the background investigations for security clearances are handled by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which relies on contractors to do most of the reviews. The reports are sent to the Pentagon and other agencies, which use them to decide which clearances should be granted.
"Today, OPM's background investigation program's performance is strong," Merton Miller, the office's associate director for Federal Investigative Services, reported to Congress last year. "We ensure the quality of our investigation products by actively pursuing feedback from our customer agencies and maintaining a robust internal quality control process."
Yet federal audits and investigations, as well as interviews with security clearance experts, say the emphasis on speed has masked weaknesses in the process that enabled Snowden and Alexis -- and perhaps others -- to slide through.
"Efforts to improve the personnel security process have emphasized timeliness but not quality," Brenda Farrell, director of defense capabilities and management at the Government Accountability Office, told Congress in June.
Among the concerns:
•Incomplete investigations: A 2009 GAO report reviewed 3,500 background investigations used by the Pentagon for top-secret clearance decisions and found that 87% lacked required documentation. Despite auditors' recommendations that the personnel management office track how often such reports are incomplete, a review earlier this year found that wasn't happening.
•Lax oversight: Because the personnel office's background investigations are funded through fees paid by client agencies, a statutory quirk limits the office's inspector general from using the money for performance audits. "My office has been alarmed for several years about the lack of oversight," Inspector General Patrick McFarland told Congress in June. "However, our hands have been tied."
•Phony reports: The inspector general repeatedly has caught background investigators falsifying reports used to decide security clearances. Eighteen have been convicted for failing to do hundreds of credit, reference and other record checks they reported completing, including one who faked 1,600 credit checks. Another 50 cases are under investigation, McCaskill says.
The problems have led McCaskill and others to question whether some cleared personnel may have to be reinvestigated. But two Pentagon officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue, said there are no plans to revisit completed background checks.
The problems come as no surprise to people who've been involved in the security clearance operation.
"The quality of the (background investigation) reports has always been an issue," says Kathleen Watson, director from 2006 to 2010 of the Defense Security Service, which used the reports to decide on thousands of clearance applications for Pentagon personnel and contractors.
"This is only news because (Snowden and Alexis) slipped through. But they're not the only guys slipping through," Watson adds. "Are you ever going to catch 100% (of the risky applicants)? No. But are you going to catch more people if the quality is better? Absolutely."
A system under pressure
The security clearance process has faced unprecedented demands since the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001.
Fueled by a huge expansion of the U.S. intelligence apparatus to support global anti-terrorism operations and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of people holding security clearances has grown to nearly 5 million, according to a 2012 estimate by the director of national intelligence.
By the time the U.S. troops invaded Iraq in 2003, security clearance backlogs already were hitting crisis levels. Later that year, Congress consolidated background investigations at the personnel management office.
The new law also set time limits for processing security clearance requests, mandating that most investigations be done within 40 days, with a decision due 20 days later.
"Quantity can't be a metric -- there's got to be a better metric that includes the quality of the product -- but that's the metric that was set," says Dave Patterson, the Pentagon's deputy comptroller at the time.
The problem, says Patterson, who now heads the National Defense Business Institute at the University of Tennessee, was that the personnel management office had far too small a workforce to handle the massive backlog it was facing. "So what do you do? You hire a lot of contractors and you incentivize them to do quantity, and that's what they did."
Today, about 70% of the investigative field work for background checks is done by contractors, according to figures provided by the personnel management office. "Contractors bid and they make promises about how many (investigations) they can do and how cheaply they can do it," McCaskill says. "Well, cheaply and quickly is a dangerous equation for background checks."
In recent years, no contractor has done more government background checks than US Investigations Services, known as USIS. The firm vetted both Edward Snowden and Aaron Alexis. It also employed some of the background investigators accused of falsifying records checks. And it now is under investigation in what the inspector general's office has called "a complicated contract fraud case."
Incomplete information
The background checks on Snowden and Alexis highlight some of the problems that federal auditors have warned about -- and some that simply reflect the imperfect science of trying to predict who will -- or will not -- be a responsible, law abiding government servant.
Snowden had a top secret clearance for years and underwent a routine re-investigation to renew it in 2011. McFarland, the inspector general, told Congress in June that "there may be some problems" with the re-investigation. A report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence found that investigators failed to interview some character references and verify Snowden's account of an unspecified security violation, according to findings first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
But there's no indication any of the shortcomings would have disqualified him from retaining his top secret access. A statement issued by USIS said the personnel management office had confirmed to the company that "all standards were met" in the background check.
Alexis got his clearance while on active Navy duty in 2008 and, under a rule allowing servicemembers to keep clearances for two years after discharge, he didn't need another check before joining the contractor that employed him at the Navy Yard. But investigations into the massacre have found that Alexis' initial background check missed signs of trouble.
Among other things, it did not reveal key details of a 2004 incident in which he shot out the tires of a construction worker's car in Seattle. He did not mention the episode -- or a string of financial problems -- on disclosures, and court records showed only that he was arrested for malicious mischief and not charged, according to information from the personnel management office. So Alexis' background check report said only that he'd deflated the car's tires.
The incident prompted Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to recommend last week that all available police reports be considered in evaluating personnel for security clearances.
But the information that may have raised the most significant concerns about both Snowden and Alexis related more to their activity after they already had their clearances in hand.
There's been no public evidence to date that Snowden had begun stealing secrets at the time of his last re-investigation in 2011. And some of Alexis' most troubling behavior came just recently.
Weeks before the Navy Yard shooting, Alexis became delusional while assigned to work at a naval base in Newport, R.I., police records show. After he complained to officers that he was hearing voices and being harassed by people with a microwave device, police relayed the information to Navy officials. Alexis' employer recalled him to rest and recuperate. But neither that incident -- nor his purchase of a shotgun weeks later -- set off alarms.
"They need to look at fundamentally different ways to do these (clearances)," says Tom Lewis, a former Department of the Army senior adviser who began his career running background investigations for Army intelligence. "You need to monitor people more or less continuously -- you can't just look at them every five or 10 years (for a re-investigation); you're missing too much."
Lewis believes the answer lies in data mining, similar to the way credit card companies watch for suspicious transactions. If a person with a security clearance is monitored for unusual travel or financial activity, he says, signs of trouble are likely to be caught much sooner.
"It's not hard to do with contemporary technology," Lewis adds. "The outlines of the background check system haven't changed since World War II. … There's a better way."

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