The private contractor responsible for hundreds of thousands of yearly security checks for the U.S. government routinely "flushes" background investigations into final approval in order to meet monthly revenue goals. That company, USIS, vetted both Navy Yard gunman Aaron Alexis and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. It's the latest bad news to emerge from the company, currently under criminal investigation, in the wake of what seem to be a series of high-profile background check failures.
The New York Times reports that the company is only paid once a background check file is marked "fieldwork finished," and the agency chose to take some shortcuts in order to get that money towards the end of each month: "in the waning days of a month, investigations were closed to meet financial quotas, without a required review by the quality control department," the paper writes, citing unnamed former management officials at the company. The Office of Personnel Management, the U.S. government office responsible for vetting employees for security clearance — the agency that contracts out to USIS, confirmed that they pay in this manner, with the implication that the pay structure is an efficiency incentive, one that seems to be working a bit too well. USIS handles about 45 percent of background checks for the OPM, or about 700,000 checks a year. And that contract work itself, the Times explains, was a result of the process's burden on the government:
Since the terrorist attacks of 2001, the need for Americans with security clearances to work for the Pentagon and military contractors has soared, with a long backlog building up in the early years of the Bush administration. Investigations for a top-secret clearance took 400 days. Companies used the Internet to identify workers with clearances at rival firms and paid them bonuses to jump ship. To speed investigations, the federal personnel office hired private companies like USIS to do the majority of the work, which significantly eased the backlog.
Earlier reports have backed up the Times's take on the pressure problem at USIS. Employees, speaking to the Washington Post, described "intense pressure" to do as many checks as quickly as possible, even if that meant ignoring red flags. While it's not clear whether Alexis was rushed through the system, the existing problems with the way USIS works have raised a lot of questions — namely, how did someone with Alexis's record gain the security clearance he had, still valid at the time of the Navy Yard shootings? Those questions have prompted the government to conduct a review of the way background checks are handled. It looks like it'll have a lot of material to work with.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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