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Broken Intel
America Keeps Too Many Secrets

Long before he leaked classified spying information, Edward Snowden, like many other government employees, went through a background investigation. It’s fair to say that process may have missed something important.

As part of its response, the Federal government is scaling back its dealings with the longest-serving private contractor that conducts these investigations (Snowden’s included). As of February 24, U.S. Investigative Services, LLC, will no longer conduct final background investigation reviews for the Office of Personnel Management, the Federal agency that oversees most security clearance investigations, The Wall Street Journal reports. The measure will bar USIS from reviewing security clearance cases completed by its own employees.

This latest news follows a string of bad press for USIS. Two weeks ago the Justice Department accused the company of submitting flawed background checks and covering up these efforts from auditors. In addition to conducting Snowden’s background check, USIS also completed the security clearance investigation for Aaron Alexis, the defense contractor who killed 12 people in a shooting spree at the Washington, DC, Navy Yard last year.

The government hopes downsizing the role of USIS in background checks will bolster the security of the investigation process:

“Sen. Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.), a leading critic of USIS, hailed the government’s move as “another step in the right direction to better protect our nation’s secrets and secure facilities.”

“The notion of letting private contractors oversee themselves—especially when it comes to work affecting our national security—was ludicrous on its face,” she said.”

This is a good start, but the Snowden, Alexis, and Bradley Manning cases should tell us that the problems go far beyond malfeasance or incompetence at one company. We seem to spy too much, classify too much, and then do a lousy job protecting the secrets we have. True reform would involve changes across all three dimensions.

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  • Corlyss

    I said that weeks ago. It has many implications, from the mindless, i.e., classifying data that is already in the public domain; to the obvious, i.e., too much data to protect and too few people to protect it; to the mundane, i.e., to guard that data, they require people who are not a threat to disclose it, which leads to a gazillion background checks, which have to rely for completion in turn on too few people, who are themselves inadequately vetted.

  • John Hasley

    Unfortunately it’s too easy to contribute to the problem. Just slap a “top secret” label on things and don’t take responsibility for making something open. It’s been an ongoing problem for a long time, “three can keep a secret if two are dead” – Poor Richard’s Almanac. More people need access to do routine jobs, which means that they have to pass security checks, which means that those checks have to be quicker so that all the people who need access to do their jobs can get that done. Now how do you convince someone to swim upstream and do the needed work?

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