Just How Effective Are the Federal Government’s Background Checks?

Just How Effective Are the Federal Government’s Background Checks?

Among the many mysteries of the Edward Snowden affair, one in particular stands out: How did the National Security Agency not know it had a leaker in its midst? Put aside the question of how Snowden allegedly downloaded top-secret files onto a thumb drive without being detected. The NSA contractor also passed through background checks administered to all employees with access to classified information without being flagged.

Now, serious questions are being raised about the company that carried out Snowden’s background check. According to the Washington Post, the government contractor, USIS, cut corners by skipping a second review of its checks in up to 50 percent of the cases. Federal investigators believe the company has "repeatedly misled the government about the thoroughness of its background checks," according to the Post.

The allegations against USIS, which handles about 45 percent of all background checks carried out by the Office of Personnel Management, raise another serious question about security at America’s intelligence agencies. Just how effective and thorough are the federal government’s background checks?

According to David Gomez, a former FBI agent and FP contributor, the background check process is not unlike a journalist’s reporting process. The subject of the background check provides an extensive list of material and individuals to be interviewed — former employers, landlords, and colleagues, for example. The investigator then contacts every person and goes through a standard set of questions. In a wonderfully bureaucratic turn of phrase, the bureau relies on a mnemonic device to guide the line of questioning, CARLABFAD: character, associates, reputation/responsibility, loyalty to the United States, ability to do job, biases, financial responsibility, alcohol use, and drug abuse.

But like a lazy reporter, an investigator can easily drop the leads generated by his questioning — or in Gomez’s words, "let bygones be bygones." The idea of a background check, Gomez explains, evokes a frightening, rigorous process with the possibility of a polygraph at the end, but the reality is far more mundane. The investigator is in all likelihood a former cop looking to supplement his retirement income and, as the United States currently has an enormous backlog of background checks, the pressure to move checks through the pipeline can be enormous. According to the Post, that pressure may have been heightened by incentive payments offered to USIS if it could make its operations more efficient.

As the Post notes, we don’t know "whether USIS did anything improper on its 2011 background check of Snowden." But if it did, it would not be the first time the U.S. intelligence community has been burned by a shoddy background check. After it emerged in 2001 that Robert Hanssen had been spying for the Soviet Union — and, later, Russia — off and on for the better part of two decades, the FBI scrambled to figure out how it had failed to spot a traitor in its midst. In 1996, it turned out, Hanssen was subject to a "reinvestigation" during the course of which investigators learned that he was in the "doghouse" with an assistant director at the bureau over a matter related to a foreign intelligence agency. One co-worker described him as a "maverick" with his "own ideas on things," and one of his listed references commented that he was friends with a Soviet defector. Another reference noted that Hanssen was having financial problems. None of these issues were followed up on, and his financial difficulties were dismissed based on the assumption that his wife was wealthy and supplemented the family income.

As far as we know, Snowden is no spy — even if he has been indicted under the Espionage Act — but based on the information available, his perspective on surveillance activity underwent a radical change during his time working for the U.S. government. As late as 2009, Snowden reportedly professed that he thought leakers "should be shot in the balls." By 2013, he was willing to leave his entire life behind in order to expose what he believes is an illegal surveillance apparatus. In the intervening four years, Snowden underwent a huge change in perspective — one that somehow was not caught by his 2011 background check.

Then again, maybe that shouldn’t be so surprising.