National Security

Published — June 16, 2014 Updated — September 16, 2014 at 2:49 pm ET

Federal contract employee reviewed 15,152 security clearances in a month, audit says

Inspector general calls rate ‘abnormal’

Introduction

Auditors for the office that oversees the approval of all federal security clearances have apparently located the most productive federal contract worker in America.

An unnamed employee at U.S. Investigative Services (known as USIS) — the same private company that processed Edward Snowden’s clearance to work at the NSA — managed to review a startling 15,152 clearance cases in a single month during fiscal 2013, according to an Office of Personnel Management inspector general’s report.

USIS is a private firm spun off from the government that does the arduous work of investigating the loyalty and integrity of applicants for sensitive federal jobs. Qualified officials are supposed to review information drawn from background investigations before granting some security clearance.

OPM pays USIS to verify that the right data was assembled into a single package for final review. Figuring a 40-hour work week, the employee cited in the IG report reviewed 1 ½ cases a minute, a pace the OPM’s watchdog called, with some understatement, “abnormal.”

It is not clear if the person still works at USIS, since the company declined to say. But in response to questions, OPM said on June 16 that the person no longer works on the agency’s contract. OPM spokeswoman Lindsey S. O’Keefe declined to say however how many clearances USIS is presently processing and where those applicants want to work in the federal government.

The two entities — still bound together by the purchase of “support services” and investigative fieldwork — are essentially in duck-and-cover mode in the wake of a Jan. 22 Justice Department filing that accused USIS of deliberately defrauding the government from March 2008 through at least September 2012, by pretending it conducted quality data reviews that never occurred. The Justice Department said USIS did this as matter of official policy, motivated by greed.

In its response at the time, USIS said the allegations “relate to a small group of individuals over a specific time period” and that it has new leadership and better oversees its workers now. Allegations against the firm attracted particular notice because one of those whose application it processed was Edward Snowden.

The new details of rote reviews are noteworthy in part because the actions in question fall outside the period mentioned by government prosecutors in their court filing. But the inspector general’s report also describes how OPM and its security clearance contractors are using software that flushes applications past internal quality reviews after 30 days — whether complete or not, a practice OPM calls “auto-release.”

It says the practice is “a necessary fail-safe to eliminate workflow backlogs and move work along in deference to timeliness mandates.” That’s a reference to Congress’ requirement that the agency process 90 percent of clearance cases within 60 days — including 40 days for a background investigation and 20 days for review.

The deadline was set to benefit applicants, but multiple reviews have shown that it caused the agency and its contractors — which often cannot conduct complex investigations that quickly — to cut corners.

The report noted that contractors are “not conducting a pre-review of all investigative items as required.” It also said a sampling of paperwork for contract reviewers and support personnel failed to prove they had adequate training. “It is clear that USIS lacks internal controls over the retention of training documentation, as they could not provide the required … documentation for almost half of the personnel we reviewed,” it stated.

USIS spokesman Patrick Scanlan said the company had no comment on the contents of the report. OPM’s director, Katherine Archuleta, said in a prepared statement that contractors do not conduct quality reviews anymore — the work has been federalized (again) — and that officials at OPM “appreciate the OIG’s diligence on this matter.” One of her aides also claimed, without allowing her name to be used, that audits and inspections of contractors have been increased.

But OPM also told the inspector general that it is only “exploring” making changes in the software that flushes applications past the reviewers after a prescribed deadline. It said its officials would “recommend” to USIS that “it consider reevaluating its internal controls” to better oversee its reviewers and validate their training.

USIS is continuing to work under two OPM contracts signed in 2011 and is “eligible for new contracts,” OPM spokeswoman Jennifer Dorsey said.

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