Major cities not playing ball with OPM clearance probes

folder stamped 'top secret'

The Office of Personnel Management maintains a list of about 450 jurisdictions where police departments have not cooperated with investigators conducting background checks on federal employees and government contractors seeking security clearances. Washington, D.C., is one, and New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle and Baltimore are among the other major cities on the list, the existence of which was disclosed in a report released Feb. 11 by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The list, which was deemed sensitive by OPM and not entered in its entirety into the record, gives a clear indication of how it was possible that the Seattle arrest of Navy Yard shooter and IT contractor Aaron Alexis in 2004 for shooting the tires off a car did not become part of his personnel file. Without direct access to police reports, clearance investigators had only the court records of the case, in which misdemeanor charges against Alexis were dropped.

In testimony before the committee, OPM Director Katherine Archuleta said she would consider making the full list public, and that she was active in working to obtain cooperation from law enforcement agencies in background investigations. Washington, D.C., has recently begun sharing police information with investigators, Archuleta announced.

Just as troubling to committee members is an ongoing whistleblower lawsuit into contractor USIS, which conducts background investigations for OPM, and until recently was in charge of certifying its own work. The lawsuit alleges that from March 2008 through September 2012, USIS was submitting incomplete investigations to OPM, in order to meet bonus targets, collecting approximately $11.8 million it would otherwise not have received. According to the lawsuit, which was recently joined by the Department of Justice, 665,000 investigations were compromised by being incomplete. OPM was initially alerted to the problem through data analysis, which showed that a few individuals at USIS were signing off on a disproportionately large number of investigations.

As a result of the lawsuit, Archuleta has federalized the oversight of background investigations, a function which had been contracted out to USIS. "Only federal employees will be conducting the second layer of quality review before the final product is sent to the agency for review and adjudication," she said.

Some on the committee were concerned that OPM hasn’t gone far enough in punishing USIS for its alleged misdeeds. "We are wimps in the federal government. Even when we are taken to the cleaners by contractors, we go back for more. There aren't any penalties that are imposed of any significance," said California Democrat Jackie Speier. Committee Democrats released a minority report highly critical of the conduct of USIS and recommending changes to the clearance process.

The committee is formulating legislation to change the security clearance process in the wake of the Navy Yard shooting and the disclosures of intelligence community practices by former IT contractor Edward Snowden. Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) introduced a bill this week that would create a continuous monitoring system for tracking cleared federal workers and contractors, to alert investigators to red flags such as arrests and sudden drops in credit scores. Under questioning, USIS CEO Sterling Phillips said that adding continuous monitoring to the firm's investigative toolkit would be "a straightforward application of technology."

Issa called on OPM to change its handbook to allow clearance investigators to probe the Internet, including social media, for information about the subjects of background checks. The most recent OPM guidelines, last updated in 2007, strictly prohibit the "general use of the Internet to obtain investigative information." Issa urged Archuleta to allow investigators to use the Internet as a tool to develop leads. "From the standpoint of the entire federal workforce, is it wise in this day and age not to at least look at the Internet before each and every person is hired?" Issa asked.


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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