09 April, 2009

Watching the watchers

The Washington Post had an article on the Federal Page about falsified security clearance checks.

Half a dozen investigators conducting security-clearance checks for the federal government have been accused of lying in the reports they submitted to the Office of Personnel Management, which handles about 90 percent of the background inquiries for more than 100 agencies.

Federal authorities said they do not think that anyone who did not deserve a job or security clearance received one or that investigators intentionally helped people slip through the screening. Instead, law enforcement officials said, the investigators lied about interviews they never conducted because they were overworked, cutting corners, trying to impress their bosses or, in the case of one contractor, seeking to earn more money by racing through the checks.

This is not particularly surprising, especially when you consider that the article reports a 22 percent increase in security checks since 2006. Presumably, the personnel and budget allocations did not get a corresponding 22 percent increase. Even before 2006, there were plenty of reports about the backlog for security investigations. Factor in the increase in investigations and you have a situation ripe for abuse through shortcuts.

The problem shows the importance of management and quality assurance. Through the fairly simple process of sending follow-up questionnaires to 20 percent of those that were interviewed, OPM was able to identify falsified interviews and investigations. GAO also has determined that 90 percent of a sampling of reports were missing at least one required document. These seem like fairly easy and accurate ways to determine whether the investigations were being completed properly.

Fixing the problem is another matter, but you can't fix a problem until you've identified it. Prosecuting the responsible investigators, reviewing allocation of funds and personnel, and changing compensation structure are all just a few things that may help reduce the amount of fraud.

The personnel problem immediately jumps out when you see the numbers in the article, which lists 1380 staff investigators and 5400 contractors doing 2 million investigations last year. You have to assume that even the most basic clearance requires a minimum of a credit check, criminal background check, employment history check, and some type of interview. I don't know how 292 investigations per investigator per year could possibly be exhaustive enough to provide the needed information.

It also seems to demonstrate that the number of people requiring clearances is excessive, which is really a whole different discussion.

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