Washington gunman vetted by same firm behind Snowden checks

USIS, one of the US’s largest security providers, admits to carrying out vetting procedures on Aaron Alexis

Aaron Alexis had been arrested three times before the Navy Yard incident, including two suspected offences involving guns. Photograph: Kristi Suthamtewakul/Reuters

Pressure to overhaul vetting procedures for US government contractors grew on Thursday after one of the largest US security providers admitted that it carried out background checks on Navy Yard gunman Aaron Alexis.

USIS, a Virginia-based company owned by private equity group Providence, had previously denied conducting background investigations into Alexis, according to a report by Bloomberg. Alexis had been arrested three times, including two suspected offences involving guns, although he was not charged or convicted. On Thursday USIS issued a statement in response to mounting questions over how Alexis received the “secret” level clearance that allowed him access to military facilities such as Navy Yard. “Today we were informed that in 2007, USIS conducted a background check of Aaron Alexis for OPM,” said a company spokesman in a statement provided to the Guardian. “We are contractually prohibited from retaining case information gathered as part of the background checks we conduct for OPM and therefore are unable to comment further on the nature or scope of this or any other background check.”

USIS, formerly known as US Investigations Services, was also involved in background checks on National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, but subsequently defended its role. In a statement to the Wall Street Journal last month, the company said the federal government did not raise any concerns at the time about its work in February 2011 on the five-year “periodic reinvestigation” of Snowden. The company said the NSA, not USIS, was ultimately responsible for approving or denying Snowden’s security clearance.

Snowden’s leaks of classified material revealing the extent of the NSA’s surveillance activities in the US and abroad prompted a review of vetting procedures for contractors by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

On Tuesday, the White House also announced a separate review by the Office of Management and Budget to examine “standards for contractors and employees across federal agencies”.

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theguardian.com, Thursday 19 September 2013 23.54 BST

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USIS Under Investigation Over Edward Snowden Background Check

WASHINGTON — The government contractor that performed a background investigation of the man who says he disclosed two National Security Agency surveillance programs is under investigation, a government watchdog said Thursday.

Patrick McFarland, the inspector general at the Office of Personnel Management, said during a Senate hearing that the contractor USIS is being investigated and that the company performed a background investigation of Edward Snowden.

McFarland also told lawmakers that there may have been problems with the way the background check of Snowden was done, but McFarland and one of his assistants declined to say after the hearing what triggered the decision to investigate USIS and whether it involved the company’s check of Snowden.

“To answer that question would require me to talk about an ongoing investigation. That’s against our policy,” Michelle Schmitz, assistant inspector general for investigations, told reporters after the hearing. “We are not going to make any comment at all on the investigation of USIS.”

USIS, which is based in Falls Church, Va., did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said she and her staff have been told that the inquiry is a criminal investigation related “to USIS’ systemic failure to adequately conduct investigations under its contract” with the Office of Personnel Management.

McCaskill said that USIS conducted a background investigation in 2011 for Snowden, who worked for government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. Snowden says he is behind the revelations about the NSA’s collection of Americans’ phone records and Internet data from U.S. Internet companies.

“We are limited in what we can say about this investigation because it is an ongoing criminal matter,” McCaskill said. “But it is a reminder that background investigations can have real consequences for our national security.”

McFarland told reporters that his office has the authority to conduct criminal investigations.

A background investigation is required for federal employees and contractors seeking a security clearance that gives them access to classified information.

Of the 4.9 million people with clearance to access “confidential and secret” government information, 1.1 million, or 21 percent, work for outside contractors, according to a January report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Of the 1.4 million who have the higher “top secret” access, 483,000, or 34 percent, work for contractors.

By RICHARD LARDNER 06/20/13 04:51 PM ET EDT

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U.S. Probes Firm That Vetted NSA Leaker

WASHINGTON—Federal inspectors have been conducting a criminal investigation for more than a year of the company that performed a background check on Edward Snowden, the former systems analyst who leaked some of the nation’s most closely held secrets to the media, U.S. officials said on Thursday.

Federal inspectors have been conducting a criminal investigation for more than a year of the company that performed a background check on Edward Snowden, the former systems analyst who leaked some of the nation’s most closely held secrets to the media. Dion Nissenbaum reports.

USIS, the largest contractor involved in conducting security background checks for the federal government, is being scrutinized over allegations about a “systematic failure to adequately conduct investigations,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) said during a special congressional hearing. Those allegations aren’t related to Mr. Snowden.

Federal officials confirmed the investigation Thursday and added that there also may have been problems with USIS’s 2011 security background check of Mr. Snowden, 29 years old, who fled to Hong Kong to avoid prosecution for admittedly taking years of classified documents while working as a Booz Allen Hamilton contractor at a National Security Agency office in Hawaii.

Later that year, inspectors at the Office of Personnel Management—which oversees more than 90% of the government’s security background checks—launched the continuing contracting-fraud investigation of USIS.

Patrick McFarland, inspector general for the Office of Personnel Management, said that there appear to have been problems with the USIS investigation of Mr. Snowden in 2011, though he didn’t provide any details. The 2011 background check of Mr. Snowden was a re-investigation for his security clearance.

“We do believe that there may be some problems,” Mr. McFarland said during the hearing.

USIS, a Falls Church, Va., company owned by private-equity firm Providence Equity Partners LLC, has more than 7,000 employees and conducts 45% of OPM investigations done by contractors, officials said. Last year, USIS received $200 million for its work, Ms. McCaskill said.

In a statement, USIS said it turned over records last year in response to a subpoena from the agency’s inspector general, but that it had never been informed it is under criminal investigation. With regards to Mr. Snowden’s security check, the company said it wouldn’t comment on confidential investigations.

The nation’s background-check system has come under renewed scrutiny in the wake of Mr. Snowden’s revelations.

The federal agency spends more than $1 billion a year to conduct 2 million investigations of people seeking security clearances for jobs doing everything from cleaning offices at the State Department to working as covert operatives overseas. Most of that money goes to contractors like USIS.

Of the roughly 2 million investigations in 2012, more than 770,000 involved people requesting new or continued access to classified information.

The system has been plagued by massive backlogs and delays of more than a year for completion of investigations. Current and former investigators have complained the process is antiquated and focuses more on making sure applicants properly fill out a 127-page application form than on thorough background checks.

On Thursday, Mr. McFarland warned that the investigative process is so flawed that it poses a security risk. “There is an alarmingly insufficient level of oversight of the federal investigative-services program,” he told lawmakers. “A lack of independent verification of the organization that conducts these important background investigations is a clear threat to national security,” he said.

One concern for lawmakers is the pressure on contractors to quickly complete cases to bring in more money for their firms.

Since 2007, 18 people have been convicted of falsifying records while conducting background checks, officials said. Eleven of those were federal workers; seven were contractors.

The latest case came Thursday when Ramon Davila, a former Virgin Islands police commissioner who worked as an independent contractor conducting background checks, pleaded guilty to making false statements about his work. Mr. Davila, who worked at one time for USIS, admitted he didn’t conduct a thorough inquiry while working as a contractor for the agency in 2007.

On Thursday, Mr. McFarland said such cases may be the tip of the iceberg. “I believe there may be considerably more,” he told lawmakers. “I don’t believe that we’ve caught it all by any stretch.”

Federal officials were pressed to explain why USIS could continue to conduct sensitive investigations while under criminal investigation.

Formerly a branch of the federal government, U.S. Investigations Services LLC was spun out of the Office of Personnel Management in 1996. It was renamed USIS after it was acquired by private-equity firms Carlyle Group LP and Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stowe in early 2003 for about $1 billion. Those firms flipped the Falls Church, Va., company to fellow private-equity firm Providence four years later for about $1.5 billion.

Providence, which specializes in buying and selling media, telecom and data companies, has since combined USIS with pre-employment-screening firm HireRight Inc., corporate-investigations firm Kroll Inc. and others under the name Altegrity Inc.

—Ryan Dezember and Evan Perez contributed to this article.
Write to Dion Nissenbaum at dion.nissenbaum@wsj.com

By Dion Nissenbaum
Updated June 21, 2013 3:56 a.m. ET

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Contractors Providing Background Checks For NSA Caught Falsifying Reports, Interviewing The Dead from the the-talking-dead dept

The fallout from Ed Snowden’s leaks has taken many forms, one of which is the NSA taking a long look at its contractors’ hiring processes. Snowden claims to have taken the job solely to gathering damning info. This revelation, combined with some inconsistencies in his educational history, have placed the companies who perform background and credit checks under the microscope.

What these agencies are now discovering can’t be making them happy, including the news that one contractor’s investigative work apparently involved a seance.
Anthony J. Domico, a former contractor hired to check the backgrounds of U.S. government workers, filed a 2006 report with the results of an investigation.

There was just one snag: A person he claimed to have interviewed had been dead for more than a decade. Domico, who had worked for contractors CACI International Inc. (CACI) and Systems Application & Technologies Inc., found himself the subject of a federal probe.
It’s not as if Domico’s case is an anomaly.
Domico is among 20 investigators who have pleaded guilty or have been convicted of falsifying such reports since 2006. Half of them worked for companies such as Altegrity Inc., which performed a background check on national-security contractor Edward Snowden. The cases may represent a fraction of the fabrications in a government vetting process with little oversight, according to lawmakers and U.S. watchdog officials.
Who watches the watchers’ watchers? It appears as if that crucial link in the chain has been ignored. Give any number of people a job to do and, no matter how important that position is, a certain percentage will cut so many corners their cubicles will start resembling spheres.

These are the people entrusted to help ensure our nation’s harvested data remains in safe hands, or at least, less abusive ones. Those defending the NSA claim this data is well-protected and surrounded by safeguards against abuse. Those claims were always a tad hollow, but this information shows them to be complete artifice. The NSA, along with several other government agencies, cannot positively say that they have taken the proper steps vetting their personnel.

USIS, the contractor who vetted Ed Snowden, openly admits there were “shortcomings” in its investigation of the whistleblower. Perhaps Snowden’s background check was a little off, but overall, calling the USIS’ problems “shortcomings” is an understatement.
Among the 10 background-check workers employed by contractors who have been convicted or pleaded guilty to falsifying records since 2006, eight of them had worked for USIS, according to the inspector general for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. The personnel agency is responsible for about 90 percent of the government’s background checks.

In one case, Kayla M. Smith, a former investigative specialist for USIS, submitted some 1,600 falsified credit reports, according to the inspector general’s office.
Smith spent 18 months turning in these falsified reports, which accounted for a third of her total output. One might wonder how someone like Smith ends up working for a background check contractor. The answer? This problem isn’t confined to one level.
[T]he investigator who had vetted Smith was convicted in a separate falsification case, Patrick McFarland, inspector general for the personnel office, said at a June 20 hearing held by two Senate panel.
Will it get better? USIS is already ceding market share to other contractors but it’s impossible to say whether its competitors will be more trustworthy. McFarland says his office doesn’t have enough funding to perform thorough probes, which indicates what’s been caught so far is just skimming the surface. These agencies harvesting our data (and their defenders) all expect Americans (and others around the world) to simply trust them. Meanwhile, the reasons why we shouldn’t continue to mount unabated.

A couple of senators are hoping their new piece of oversight legislation will fix the problem. It would provide McFarland’s office with more investigation funding, but simply adding more “oversight” isn’t going to make the problem go away. The NSA’s mouthpieces continue to insist that everything it does is subject to tons and tons of “oversight,” but that has done very little to improve its standing in the “trustworthy” department. There are systemic issues that need to be addressed, both in these agencies and the contractors they hire and expecting to paper over the cracks with a little legislation will only result in more revelations of wrongdoing, rather than fewer occurrences.

by Tim Cushing
Wed, Jul 10th 2013 8:49am

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