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September 24, 2013

Should profit-driven firms be doing background checks?

WASHINGTON — In the wake of the Washington Navy Yard killings - 12 dead plus the shooter - President Obama called for an examination of the security clearance process.

"It's clear we need to do a better job of securing our military facilities and deciding who gets access to them," Obama said as he remembered the slain at a memorial service Sunday. "And as commander in chief, I have ordered a review of procedures up and down the chain."

That review undoubtedly will look at how Aaron Alexis was able to have a security clearance that allowed him to work at the Navy Yard, despite nine years of warning signs, as Sunday's Washington Post reported.

As the Obama administration looks at how the government can do a better job of "deciding who gets access," some of the president's strongest supporters would like the review to consider who does the background security investigations that lead to those decisions.

Before getting into that, let's deal with the intersection of last week's big news regarding background security investigations and this week's big news, the looming partial government shutdown. If some federal offices close next month because Congress has not approved temporary funding, will background investigations shut down, too?

No.

The investigations "are funded through a revolving fund account, which would not be subject to a government shutdown due to a lapse in appropriation," according to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

Returning to the question of conducting the investigations, should that continue to be done by private companies, with their obligation to make money, or federal employees, whose obligation is to serve the people and their government? The background investigations provide the information that agencies need to determine who gets security clearances to work on military bases and in other sensitive government facilities.

For the largest government employee union, long wary of contractors doing the government's work, the answer is clear.

"We do believe that standards for security clearances for contractors need to be changed, and that most government work that involves security clearances should be performed by federal employees, not contractors," said J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). "In addition, we believe that access to government facilities for contractors should be severely restrained."

Stan Soloway, president and chief executive of the Professional Services Council, which represents contractors, doesn't buy that argument.

"Whether the investigations are conducted internally or externally, they are subject to the same quality controls and requirements," he said. "Should we assess the quality of oversight of background checks performed, be it by government or contractor personnel? Absolutely. But to suggest there are more issues or risks with one community versus the other is fundamentally contrary to the facts and is more a matter of convenience than substance."

Yet reporting by my Washington Post colleagues reveals troubling stories from former workers at USIS, the firm that did background checks for both Alexis and Edward Snowden, who leaked highly secret National Security Agency information. Both Alexis and Snowden, by the way, were government contractors.

USIS was spun off from OPM, with some employees of the agency's security and investigations unit going to the newly formed private firm. "USIS was established in July 1996 as a result of the privatization of the investigative branch of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM)," says the company's Web site.

Uncle Sam gave the company a great start-up gift - a three-year noncompetitive contract. Today, it has 100 federal contracts.

The Washington Post's Jia Lynn Yang wrote that one former USIS investigator said the push to increase the volume of completed investigations "was like wink, wink, do this as fast as humanly possible. . . . There was intense pressure to do more and faster."

USIS declined to comment.

Doing more faster certainly doesn't apply to contractors only. Many federal employees probably feel the same pressure, particularly during a time of budget cuts. But one thing does set Sam apart - he doesn't operate on the profit motive.

"There is absolutely no question that privatization of the process of conducting background checks was a costly mistake," Cox said. "The incentives are all wrong for this crucially important government function. Minimizing cost to maximize profits in this context just means failing to take the time or hiring the people necessary to do a thorough job. If ever there were a good candidate for insourcing, this would be it."

Pardon the jargon, but given the history of USIS, it would be "re-insourcing."

          

 

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