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Lawmakers and OPM Take Contractor to Task Over Security Clearance Lapses

The White House and Congress don't agree on much. But they both support more stringent oversight of those receiving security clearances -- as well as those who process them.

July 23, 2014 - Although political partisanship ostensibly pervades every facet of governance in the United States, combating fraud, waste, and abuse seems one area where lawmakers and civil servants can often find common ground.

On July 17, ranking members of the House and Senate Oversight Committees, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), respectively, drafted a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, citing allegations that U.S. Investigative Services, a contractor tasked with reviewing the security clearances of hundreds of thousands of applicants, defrauded the U.S. government out of millions of dollars.

In the letter, Cummings and Coburn request that DHS submit the details of its selection process in awarding USIS a $190 million contract to support the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The lawmakers assert that DHS failed to take past performance into account when assessing the firm’s risk potential.

That's because this isn't the first time the contractor in question has faced scrutiny by federal oversight officials. In January, the Justice Department accused USIS of submitting more than half a million incomplete security clearance-related background checks in an attempt to boost revenues. According to DOJ, this represented roughly 40 percent of the firm’s total workload.

A related report filed by the Office of Personnel Management inspector general found that a single USIS employee had managed to process 15,152 security clearances in one month in 2013 – a rate of one every ninety seconds – a remarkable feat given that the process typically takes ninety days.

In response, a USIS spokesman issued a statement asserting that the fraudulent behaviors were confined to a “small group of individuals over a specific time period and are inconsistent with the strong service record we have earned.”

According to investigators, many of these reviews were left incomplete due to a software mechanism that automatically submits applications to OPM once an allotted deadline has past. Critics charge that these fail-safes – originally designed to improve timeliness – can provide incentives to cut corners.

USIS, the federal government’s largest single provider of investigative services, remains dogged by criticism from both parties regarding the quality of its reviews during the period in question – March 2008 through September 2012 – during which time USIS staff would have processed the clearances of both Aaron Alexis and Edward Snowden. 

Alexis, a former Navy reservist with a history of mental illness, used his clearance to gain access to the Washington Navy Yard, where killed twelve people in 2013. Snowden, a former NSA contractor, leaked hundreds of thousands of classified documents illuminating the scale of U.S. surveillance operations worldwide, arguably damaging U.S. credibility at home and abroad.

In the wake of the Navy Yard shooting and Snowden leaks, the Obama White House made overhauling the security clearance certification process a major cross-agency priority. Throughout 2014 and beyond, a joint task force led by OPM, OMB, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence will coordinate with federal agencies to establish a framework for continuously evaluating officials with Secret and Top Secret clearances.

In the short term, however, OPM will re-federalize many of the screening operations that were until recently delegated to contract personnel. USIS will continue work under two contracts signed in 2011, and according to an OPM spokesperson, remains eligible for new contracts.

Update:

OPM and DHS have suspended contracts with USIS after the contractor suffered a major data breach, potentially compromising the personally-identifiable information of hundreds of thousands of security clearance applicants.

Disclaimer

This post is written by Government Business Council; it is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Government Executive Media Group's editorial staff. For more information, see our advertising guidelines.

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