How secure are security clearances?
The recent revelation that a Lebanese woman gained U.S. citizenship through a sham marriage and worked for the FBI and then the CIA for nearly a decade has placed the intelligence agencies’ security clearance processes under scrutiny.
Although Nada Nadim Prouty pleaded guilty Nov. 13 to conspiracy, unauthorized access to an FBI database and naturalization fraud charges, which could send her back to Lebanon, she leaves behind unanswered questions for U.S. officials.
For instance, how did Prouty slip through repeated background investigations by both intelligence agencies, which failed to uncover that Prouty paid an unemployed U.S. citizen to marry her so she could gain citizenship in 1990? Furthermore, although the FBI hired her before the 2001 terrorist attacks heightened security awareness, some experts wonder how she managed to get a job with the CIA in 2003.
In the past few years, the FBI introduced a new vetting process for foreign-born applicants. Even before those changes, however, Prouty’s position as an FBI special agent required that she pass a polygraph test and that investigators conduct interviews with her former spouse — neither of which raised any flags.
The incident is an opportunity for evaluation, said Stephen Kodak, an FBI spokesman.
“FBI continually seeks and implements improvements to our background and selection process.”
The CIA also will continue to re-evaluate its policies and procedures around granting security clearances, said George Little, an agency spokesman.
Neither agency would comment on the extent to which they shared information regarding Prouty’s background investigations.
Prouty left the FBI after four years, so the agency never conducted a mandatory five-year reinvestigation.
“When she obtained employment at the CIA, she most likely received a polygraph,” said Evan Lesser, director of Clearance- Jobs.com. “I would put most of the blame on the CIA vetting process for new hires. This is a rare exception of someone slipping through the cracks because they were a naturalized citizen before their FBI employment.”
Whether the security problems are widespread or acute, their existence is cause for concern, said Lawrence Halloran, deputy staff director for Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), ranking member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “It doesn’t have to be endemic as it only takes one spy,” Halloran said.
Prouty pleaded guilty to unlawfully searching the FBI’s Automated Case Support computer system for information about an FBI Detroit field office investigation into Hezbollah in 2003. Prouty was not charged with espionage or sending information to the terrorist organization.
But court documents mention that her sister had attended fundraising events where a leading Hezbollah figure was the keynote speaker.
The Office of Personnel Management handles 90 percent of the background investigations for agencies. However, some excepted agencies, such as the FBI, CIA and National Security Agency, handle their own processes, said Michael Orenstein, an OPM spokesman.
When an employee wishes to transfer to another agency, as Prouty did, departments usually have reciprocity that extends between the excepted service agencies and nonexcepted agencies. However, if some part of the new job warrants additional investigation into the applicant’s background, agencies might pursue further inquiries, Orenstein added.
The 2004 Intelligence Reform Terrorism Prevention Act aimed to improve reciprocity among agencies by having OPM manage a database with background information from various federal agencies. “The problem with the system is that it varies,” Halloran said. “The answer to this in terms of reciprocity is to standardize the process.”
Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.