In the wake of the media frenzy regarding the background investigations of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and the Washington Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis, questions have been focused on how both of them passed the background investigation process.  Here are a few thoughts about the investigation process only.  We can discuss the other (adjudications) side of the coin at a later date.

The Senate called for a probe to conduct an extensive review of the background investigation process conducted on Alexis, insinuating that someone somewhere did not do their job.  The Office of Personnel Management (OPM), who is responsible for establishing the requirements for each type of investigation and ensuring  they are met, issued a statement that they had done just that in this case and that it was the agency who requested the investigation whose responsibility it was to review it and make a decision based on the available information, or to request more information if needed.  As a result of all this, the Senate has proposed the Enhanced Security Clearance Act of 2013 Bill.  It is interesting to note that this proposed bill only applies to background investigations for those needing security clearances.  Why is the focus only on those that are granted a security clearance?  What about the majority of people who access federal facilities and/or work in Public Trust positions who do not fall into this category?  Are they any less likely than Alexis to commit some horrible act because they do not hold a security clearance?

What no one has mentioned is that gaps exist in the current background investigation standards established by OPM for each investigation regarding how and what information is collected.  There are various types of background investigations that are based on the individual’s position designation.  Three investigations do not require a personal security interview of the person being investigated and these are: National Agency Check with Inquires (NACI), Advanced National Agency Check with Inquires (ANACI); National Agency Check with Law Enforcement and Credit Checks (NACLC).  The majority of the contractors and civil service employees who work for the Federal Government are investigated using one of these types of investigations.  The ANACI and NACLC are also used to grant individuals security clearances at the “Confidential” and “Secret” level.

What is the problem with this?  As any security professional will tell you, it is easier for the subject of a background investigation to be deceitful or less than forthright on a form than in a face to face interview.  As an investigator, it always amazed me how many times, while conducting the personnel security interview and going over the questionnaire that they had filled out and certified as true, the number of times a subject would all of a sudden remember information they had forgotten to list: an arrest or original charge of DUI that was pled down; using marijuana two years ago; the repossession of a car or collection account; or the trip to Taiwan last year.  The personal subject interview provides the individual an opportunity to voluntarily disclose required information that they “forgot” to list on the form and explain why they didn’t list it.  This last question is a key piece of information that adjudicators need in order to evaluate the seriousness of the non-disclosure and apply possible mitigation.  It can also aid in making an unfavorable decision if they pass up this opportunity and continue to conceal the information.

Another problem with these three investigations, as well as the Moderate Background Investigation (MBI) used for Moderate Risk Public Trust and National Security positions, is the lack of information obtained by the inquiries that are mailed out by OPM to the listed references on the form.  Quite often, these inquiries are ignored and are not filled out and sent back in.  If they are mailed in, the information provided is of minimal value for two reasons: the reference does not elaborate on any known adverse information for fear of reprisal or because they have a personal relationship with the individual or; if employment related, the reference only discloses information regarding position, dates of employment, and eligibility for rehire even though adverse information may be known.  This is usually because of fear of litigation and/or company policies.  Federal employees who get into trouble are also protected by arbitration hearings and the Merit System Protection Board in settlement cases in which the employee is allowed to “voluntarily resign” in lieu of removal and the agency is required to erase all records regarding the removal or adverse action and are not allowed to disclose to anyone anything about the reasons for the resignation, other than the aforementioned basic information.  In my mind, this totally circumvents the purpose of the background investigation and does not paint an “accurate” picture of the individual’s conduct and character.

Think about this fact- all of the references listed on the form used to corroborate the individual’s residence, education, employment and social activities are provided by the subject of the investigation.  Do we actually expect the individual to provide a reference for someone who knows adverse information about them?  In some cases, e.g., an employment supervisor, it may be unavoidable, but in most cases the answer is an emphatic “No.”  Inquiries, more often than not, do not capture enough details and information about the subject of a background investigation to be useful to adjudicators.  They are, however, good enough to make the decision to issue someone access to classified national security information and/or put them into a Public Trust position.

What are acceptable alternatives that will fit into the current fiscal climate and politicians can stomach?  Can we overcome the informational privacy fanatics who squawk and claim government intrusion into their private lives, but many of whom also post their entire life history on Facebook and/or other social media websites?  I have some ideas, but will keep those to myself for now.  These are the challenges in coming up with and implementing any changes to the current standards.  There will always be second-guessing and knee-jerk reactions by politicians when something like the Navy Yard shooting happens.  Regardless, the majority of the security professionals out there work tirelessly everyday within the constraints of the system and do their best to weed out the few among us who should not be allowed access.

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Marko Hakamaa served in various military police positions with the United States Army worldwide for 22 years before retiring in 2006 as a Master Sergeant. Afterwards, he transitioned into the civilian workforce as a contractor background investigator for the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) before entering civil service as a Security Specialist in 2009.