Issa subpoenas OPM documents on background checks

Friday - 11/22/2013, 2:20pm EST

Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Darrell Issa (R- Calif.) has issued a subpoena for records from the Office of Personnel Management, seeking more details on the agency's process for conducting background investigations.

OPM's Federal Investigative Services division, which conducts 90 percent of the federal government's background investigations, has come under intense scrutiny since it was revealed earlier this year that the same contractor — United States Investigation Services (USIS) — performed background checks of both National Security agency leaker Edward Snowden and Navy Yard gunman Aaron Alexis.

Completing a background investigation is the first step in obtaining a security clearance.

Issa said he has pressed OPM to produce documents related to its background investigations, but he said the agency has failed to fully comply with his committee's requests.

"The security clearances that both Snowden and Alexis received from the federal government enabled them to carry out their heinous acts," Issa wrote in a Nov. 20 letter to OPM Director Katherine Archuleta, predating the subpoena. "The Office of Personnel Management orchestrated the process through which these two individuals obtained security clearances. Congress and the American people rightly deserve detailed information about the policies and processes that allowed Aaron Alexis and Edward Snowden to obtain security clearances."

In the case of Alexis, who opened fire Sept. 16 at the Naval Sea Systems Command headquarters in Washington, D.C., killing 12 people, Issa said OPM's 2007 background check failed to turn up an "arrest record — easily obtained by Committee investigators — that showed he discharged a weapon in public and behaved erratically."

OPM, however, has defended Alexis' check, saying it complied with investigative standards and that the Defense Department signed off on the results.

They 'either got 'em, or they don't'

The subpoena seeks details from all contracts OPM has with private-sector companies to conduct investigations. In addition, the committee wants the agency to turn over training documents and guidelines issued by OPM for its investigators ands documents relating to performance appraisals for employees who conduct investigations.

Issa's office said reviews of material already provided by the agency appear to show OPM-approved training guidance encouraging investigators to rush through work.

"For example, one OPM training presentation ... discussed 'how to complete a thirty day caseload in less than thirty days,'" Issa's Nov. 20 letter stated. "This same document offered other cavalier instructions, such as startling advice with respect to obtaining certain criminal records, namely that a local law enforcement office 'either got 'em, or they don't.' Thus, OPM guidelines appear to encourage its investigative staff and contract employees to exert less than a full effort to obtain pertinent law enforcement records."

Last month, the Justice Department announced it was joining a whistleblower False Claims suit against USIS, alleging the company took shortcuts with many of the background investigations it handled, signing off on reports that were never properly reviewed to meet revenue targets.

In a statement at the time, OPM officials said the agency doesn't tolerate fraud or falsification and is working "hand in hand" with both its inspector general's office and DOJ.

At an annual meeting of the federal Chief Human Capital Officers Council last week, Archuleta, the new head of OPM who has been on the job for less than a month, said the issue of background checks is "front and center" for the agency and "making sure we're doing all we can to make sure it's a smooth process" is a priority of hers.

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