Justice Department sues security clearance firm

Edward Snowden

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's background check was conducted by USIS, although it is not clear if his is one of those that is the subject of a Justice Department lawsuit.

The Justice Department is suing the security clearance firm USIS for fraud, alleging that the contractor submitted more than 660,000 faulty or poorly reviewed background checks over four years.

According to the complaint, USIS obtained almost $12 million in federal bonuses between 2008 and 2012, in part on the basis of background checks that its contracting agency, the Office of Personnel Management, presumed were being done according to established procedure. The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Alabama and first reported by the Wall Street Journal, alleges that the company wrote software designed to "dump" incomplete investigations on OPM.

The court documents also spotlight the joking tone on the part of company officials in memos allegedly discussing their plans to furnish incomplete background checks to OPM. In filing the lawsuit, the Justice Department is backing claims made in a whistleblower lawsuit filed by a former USIS executive.

Among the background checks performed by USIS were those on intelligence community contractor Edward Snowden and Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis. The complaint does not indicate whether the checks on Snowden or Alexis were part of improperly performed investigations.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) revealed that USIS was under investigation in June 2013 during a Senate hearing convened in part to spotlight a gap in the ability of OPM’s inspector general to tap into the agency's revolving fund to conduct audit investigations. The House recently passed legislation to make the fund available to the Office of the Inspector General.

"Since first learning of these allegations nearly two years ago, we have acted decisively to reinforce our processes and management to ensure the quality of our work and adherence to OPM requirements,” a USIS spokesman said in a statement. “We appointed a new leadership team, enhanced oversight procedures, and improved control protocols. From the outset, we have fully cooperated with the government’s investigation and remain focused on delivering the highest quality service under our OPM contracts.”

USIS, which employs 6,000 people, was established after the privatization of the investigations arm of OPM in 1996. Federal contracts make up about 90 percent of the company's business. The firm has received upwards of $4 billion in federal contracts over the last 10 years, according to the Wall Street Journal.

That lucrative market could be constrained if the recommendations of the President's Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies are followed. The group, convened to issue recommendations about government surveillance programs and information security in the wake of disclosures based on documents leaked by Snowden, recommends sweeping changes to the security clearance policy. The panel advised that security clearance probes be conducted by government agents or a private-sector non-profit corporation modeled on federally funded research and development centers like the MITRE Corporation and the RAND Corporation. USIS is a subsidiary of Altegrity, a privately held for-profit firm controlled by the private equity company Providence Equity Partners.

"We believe that the current security clearance personnel vetting practices of most federal departments and agencies are expensive and time consuming, and they may not reliably detect the potential for abuse in a timely manner," the group wrote.


About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.

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Reader comments

Sun, Sep 21, 2014 George G Sarris

I revealed to Congress in 2008 that the United States Air Force was operating a fleet of specialized reconnaissance aircraft (RC-135s) that were not airworthy. The agency retaliated with an immediate attack on my character to divert attention away from the maintenance issues that I had reported. The diversion included a trip through the Pentagon, Congress, and the Nebraska State Court system. Eventually, government investigations substantiated the non-airworthy conditions that I had reported, but not before the United States had secured a 1.3 billion dollar foreign military sale to the United Kingdom for the same type of aircraft. The agency suspended my security clearance and refused to provide me with the derogatory information it had compiled against me. After 17 months, I conducted a one-man, lawful and peaceful protest at the off-base residence of Lt. Col. Dana C. McCown, the aircraft maintenance commander of the 55th Wing. My protest broke the stalemate when McCown petitioned the Sarpy County District Court for a harassment protection order against me. Through civil court actions, I was able to prove that McCown had lied to federal investigators, paving the way to a global settlement in April 2011. My security clearance was adjudicated in April 2012. Although a Federal administrative law judge recommended the reinstatement of my security clearance, the personal security appeals board (PSAB) chose to disregard his recommendation. Through these events, I stumbled upon a breach of national security involving two major commands, spanning several decades. When I reported this security breach to senior defense officials, a “be on the lookout” was issued against me by the 55th Wing, Offutt AFB, NE., challenging my authority to act as an officer of AFGE Local 1486. My security clearance was in suspension for nearly 36 months. How do I discover if USIS was involved in this coverup. It USIS was involved, I would like to join the lawsuit brought about by the Department of Justice. Now that I have retired and the blackmail has ended, I am providing this information to demonstrate how harassment, intimidation, and reprisals are used to control the Federal workforce when management fears that it has been caught doing something unethical or illegal, thus the title, “Cowardice in Leadership – A Lesson in Harassment, Intimidation, and Reprisals”.

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