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NSA leaks raise concerns on background checks

Edward Snowden was twice approved for holding national security jobs, for the CIA and the National Security Agency.

Glenn Greenwald/Laura Poitras/Courtesy of The Guardian via Reuters

Edward Snowden was twice approved for holding national security jobs, for the CIA and the National Security Agency.

WASHINGTON — Before Edward Snowden began leaking national security secrets, he twice cleared the hurdle of the federal government’s background check system — first at the CIA, then as a systems analyst at the National Security Agency.

Snowden’s path into secretive national security jobs has raised concerns about the system that outsources many of the government’s most sensitive background checks to an army of private investigators and pays hundreds of millions of dollars in federal contracts to companies that employ them.

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‘‘You can’t outsource national security,’’ said Robert Baer, a former CIA veteran who worked in a succession of agency stations in the Mideast. ‘‘As long as we depend on the intel-industrial complex for vetting, we’re going to get more Snowdens.’’

The company with the biggest share of contracts is under a federal investigation into possible criminal violations involving its oversight of background checks, officials familiar with the matter said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation.

Even with fresh congressional scrutiny, the federal government appears wedded to the incumbent screening system.

Nearly three-quarters of the government’s background checks are done by private companies; of those, over 45 percent are handled by the US Investigations Services, according to the US Office of Personnel Management, the agency overseeing most of the government’s background checks.

USIS, which started out with 700 former government employees in 1996 and is now run by a private equity fund, dominates the background check industry, taking in $195 million in government payments last year and more than $215 million already this year.

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The OPM turned to private security screeners in the late 1990s because of growing backlogs that were snarling the government’s hiring process. A force of 2,500 OPM investigators and more than 6,700 private contract screeners has sliced into those backlogs, reducing the time it takes on average for background screening by 9 percent in 2010.

As of 2012, more than 4.9 million government workers held security clearances. Senior federal appointments are still carefully investigated by FBI agents, and the FBI and the CIA still maintain strong in-house screening staffs to vet their own sensitive positions.

But privatization efforts started during the Clinton administration keep farming out work to contractors. The Defense Department turned over its screening work to OPM in 2004 and even intelligence agencies that conduct their own investigations relegate some checks to private companies.

The OPM’s success has come with mounting government expenditures. The average cost of a background investigation rose from $581 in 2005 to $882 in 2011, according to the Government Accountability Office. At the same time, a $1 billion ‘‘revolving fund’’ paid by federal agencies for most background checks has remained off-limits to outside audits. The White House pledged only recently to provide money for an inspector general’s office audit of the fund in the 2014 budget.

The inspector general appointed to watch over the OPM, Patrick McFarland, said at a Senate hearing last month that there were problems with Snowden’s most recent screening before he was hired to work for defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. as an NSA computer systems analyst. McFarland did not specify the problems, but he said Snowden was screened and approved last year by USIS.

McFarland’s office, aided by the Justice Department, is investigating whether USIS exaggerated the extent of its internal reviews of background checks, said two government officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss details of the two-year inquiry.

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