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Granting Security Clearances: Is Any One Really In Charge?Allan C. Brownfeld Salem-News.com
Exactly how broken the system is, is now clear to all. And what needs to be done to correct it is hardly a mystery. Whether we have the will to take action remains an open question.
(WASHINGTON DC) - In September, Washington was shaken when a man, armed with both weapons and a security clearance, entered the Washington Navy Yard and killed 12 men and women. Similarly, Edward Snowden, who leaked thousands of classified documents, was in full possession of a top secret security clearance.
Neither Aaron Alexis, the Navy Yard shooter, nor Snowden, were employees of the U.S. Government. And their security clearances came not as a result of investigation by law enforcement or other duly constituted government entities. Both men worked for private contractors. And their security clearances were obtained by another private contractor.
Consider Edward Snowden. He is one of hundreds of thousands of private-sector intelligence workers, many of whom possess top-secret security clearances. His employer at the time of the leaks was Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the largest and most profitable corporations in the country. Nearly all of its recent $5.7 billion in annual revenue come from contracts with the U.S. Government----almost a fourth of it from intelligence work alone. Of the estimated $80 billion the government will spend on intelligence this year, most is spent on private contractors.
Booz Allen's relationship with government has been mired in controversy. In 2008, one of its employees at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida was granted the highest level "top secret" security clearance even though he had been convicted a few months earlier of lying to government officials in order to sneak a South African woman he had met on the Internet into the country. Last year, the Air Force temporarily suspended the San Antonio division of the company from future contracts because it had obtained and distributed confidential Pentagon bidding data for its own competitive advantage. In 2006, the Justice Department said the company over billed travel expenses and the agency initially recommended that Booz Allen be barred from federal contracting.
As it turns out, the same private contractor, USIS, once known as US Investigations Services, conducted the background check of both Edward Snowden and Aaron Alexis. As a result of investigations into USIS in the wake of Naval Yard murders, we know a bit more about how this contractor does its job. One employee, Ileana Privatera, reported that a computer-software system gave her assignments every week with new people to interview. As many as 10 cases were due in a single day.
USIS is now under criminal investigation over whether it misled officials about the thoroughness of its work. A number of former employees have been charged with falsifying records in recent years. The company is now the biggest private contractor handling background checks for the government. One former employee told THE WASHINGTON POST, "It was like wink, wink do this as fast as humanly possible. There was this intense pressure to do more and faster." Another former employee said, "If I had three months to check this person out, I'd be doing a more thorough process. When you're giving me a week to interview 50 people, that's impossible."
Mark Riley, a former Army officer who works as a private security clearance lawyer, says that investigations for security clearances "are much more cursory. They don't ask the right follow-up questions...The bottom line is the buck, rather than national security."
The process for "secret" level clearance---the kind the Navy Yard shooter had---requires only information from a self-reported questionnaire, a credit check and data from local law enforcement. No interviews with the subject or with references, including neighbors and former spouses, are required.
We now know the things USIS employees did not know when Aaron Alexis was given a security clearance. It didn't take long to discover his erratic and violent behavior. Alexis was arrested three times in three states for acts of violence. He told Seattle police in 2004, for example, that he'd had anger blackouts so intense that he couldn't recall shooting three rounds from the .45-caliber Glock he usually kept strapped to his waist. An upstairs neighbor in Texas in 2010 told police she was terrified of him after a gunshot came through the floor a few feet from where she was sitting. Three other times, in other states, he was cited in police reports for acts of aggression or hallucinations.
Navy security officials, warned in August by police in Rhode Island that Alexis was hearing voices, a key indicator of a mental break, failed to notify the technology company, another government contractor, where he worked, nor did they pass the information up the chain of command. Alexis's outbursts never made it into a national data base that would have notified police among different jurisdictions and turned up in background checks for gun purchases, enlisting in the military or obtaining a security clearance.
In the case of Edward Snowden, THE NEW YORK TIMES reported in October that just as Snowden was preparing to leave Geneva and a job as a CIA technician in 2009, his supervisor wrote a derogatory report in his personnel file, noting a change in his behavior and work habits, as well as a troubling suspicion, The CIA suspected that Snowden was trying to break into classified computer files to which he was not authorized to have access and decided to send him home. The red flags were ignored and Snowden went on to become a contractor for the National Security Agency, and four years later leaked thousands of documents.
Why have we contracted to for-profit private companies the inherently governmental function of investigating people for security clearances---and of doing intelligence work itself? Of the estimated $80 billion the government will spend on intelligence this year, most is spent on private contractors.
The basic justification for outsourcing government work is get the job done more cheaply. Outsourcing intelligence does not seem to achieving even this goal. At a Senate hearing on intelligence contractors in 2011, a witness from the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group, cited research from 2008 showing that the government paid private contractions 1.6 times what it would have cost to have had government employees perform the work.
It is one thing to have private contractors provide janitorial service----or run cafeterias in government buildings---and quite another when it comes to intelligence and the granting of security clearances, surely a uniquely governmental function. Security experts have pointed out that private sector employees with top-secret clearances are now estimated at up to 500,000, and make security breaches far more likely.
The shootings at the Washington Naval Yard by Aaron Alexis and the release of thousands of classified documents by Edward Snowden could have been avoided if protecting national security---not private profit---was the motivating factor for those granting security clearances. Will we learn from these events and reform our system? Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says that, "When you go back in hindsight and look at all this, there were some red flags, of course there were. Why they didn't get picked up, why they didn't get incorporated into the clearance process....these are all legitimate questions that we're going to be dealing with."
Secretary Hagel was reluctant to assess blame. But exactly how broken the system is, is now clear to all. And what needs to be done to correct it is hardly a mystery. Whether we have the will to take action remains an open question.
Salem-News.com contributor Allan C. Brownfeld received his B.A. degree from the College of William and Mary, his J.D. degree from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary and his M.A. in Government and Politics from the University of Maryland. He has served on the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia, and the University College of the University of Maryland.
The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, Mr. Brownfeld has written for such newspapers as THE HOUSTON PRESS, THE RICHMOND TIMES DISPATCH, THE WASHINGTON EVENING STAR and THE CINCINNATI ENQUIRER. For many years he wrote three columns a week for such newspapers as THE PHOENIX GAZETTE, THE MANCHESTER UNION LEADER, and THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER. His weekly column appeared for more than a decade in ROLL CALL, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in such journals as THE YALE REVIEW, THE TEXAS QUARTERLY, THE NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW, ORBIS and MODERN AGE.
Mr. Brownfeld served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and was the author of that committee's 250-page study of the New Left. He has also served as Assistant to the Research Director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to such members of Congress as Reps. Phil Crane (R-Il) and Jack Kemp (R-NY) and to the Vice President of the United States.
He is a former editor of THE NEW GUARD and PRIVATE PRACTICE, the journal of the Congress of County Medical Societies and has served as a Contributing Editor AMERICA'S FUTURE and HUMAN EVENTS. He served as Washington correspondent for the London-based publications, JANE'S ISLAMIC AFFAIRS ANALYST and JANE'S TERRORISM REPORT. His articles regularly appear in newspapers and magazines in England, South Africa, Sweden, the Netherlands and other countries. You can write to Allan at firstname.lastname@example.org
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