Report

Security Contractor Reviews 15,152 Cases in a Month, Audit Says

Security Contractor Reviews 15,152 Cases in a Month, Audit Says

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

An unnamed employee at U.S. Investigative Services (USIS) — the same private company that processed Edward Snowden’s clearance to work for 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 security investigations before granting some security clearance. OPM pays USIS to verify that the right data was compiled into a single package for final review. Figuring a 40-hour work week, the employee cited in the IG report reviewed 1.5 cases a minute — a pace the OPM’s watchdog called “abnormal.”

It is not clear if the person still works at USIS, since the company declined to say. OPM said on June 16 that the worker no longer works on the agency’s contract.

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 January response, 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. Allegations against the firm attracted particular notice because one of those whose application it processed was Snowden.

The report’s revelation of rote reviews is also outside the timeframe delineated in government prosecutors’ January court filing. And it describes how OPM and its contractors use software that flushes security-clearance applications past internal quality reviews after 30 days — whether complete or not — a practice OPM calls “auto-release.”

Auto-release is “a necessary fail-safe to eliminate workflow backlogs and move work along in deference to timeliness mandates,” according to OPM. That’s a reference to Congress’s 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. Instead, it has caused OPM 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 contract reviewers and support personnel might not have 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 report’s findings. OPM spokeswoman Lindsey S. O’Keefe declined to say how many clearances USIS is presently processing and where those applicants want to work in the federal government.

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 told the inspector general that it is only “exploring” making changes in the “auto-release” software. It said its officials would “recommend” to USIS that “it consider reevaluating its internal controls” to better oversee reviewers’ work and training.

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

This story was originally published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.