Fixing the security clearance mess starts with bringing background investigations back in house

Tuesday - 5/20/2014, 1:17pm EDT

Commentary by Matthew Baum
Former Investigations Desk Officer
OPM Office of Federal Investigations

This column is part of Federal News Radio's special report, Trust Redefined: Reconnecting Government and Its Employees.

Several recent incidents over the past two years regarding the United States Investigations Services (USIS) have brought to light several disturbing things which should cause serious concern in national security circles.

The recently uncovered USIS using the practice of "flushing," or dumping Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and Defense Department requested background investigations, and the sudden focus on security background investigations brought memories back of my six years of service in the once very proud OPM Office of Federal Investigations (OFI), the federal predecessor to USIS. This organization was eliminated for political reasons and this result was predicted!

(Photo courtesy of Matthew Baum)

Many former OFI employees predicted back in 1995 that the subsequent reliance on contractors by the federal government to accomplish an inherently federal security function would backfire.

The main concern we had was that such a failure would have potentially dire consequences for our national security. It seems as though our past fears finally came true. USIS conducted both Edward Snowden's background, and tragically the Washington Naval Yard shooter, Aaron Alexis' background.

Many are asking how did these two individuals get through the process? What went wrong? That still has yet to be officially determined, but I'm willing to offer you some light on what I think went wrong.

I was hired by OFI from my position with the Federal Bureau of Investigations and served in the mid-1990s as an investigations "desk officer" reviewing national security background investigations for completeness, legality and quality. The desk officer's review was the final step before the cases were sent to the requesting agency. If they didn't pass our well established quality and completeness standards, the case went back to the field. If the case was derogatory, desk officers/reviewers had the ability to expand the case until a conclusion either positive or negative could be determined to close the case.

Dozens of us reviewers, as we came to be called, were some of the best in the business. Together with the hundreds of professional career investigators in the field, OFI's cases became the standard by which non-FBI conducted national security background investigations were measured.

Many private sector contractors conducting similar investigations used our techniques and processing procedures as the model for their investigative services. However, that all changed in 1995 due to politics and something called the National Performance Review (NPR), headed up by then-Vice President Al Gore.

NPR swallowed up in wave of 'privatization'

The NPR, which was conducted in the mid-1990s by the Clinton administration, selected OPM OFI as one of the first "privatization" targets and uses it as an example of modern federal cost savings. The privatization process literally gutted highly experienced investigators and reviewers from OFI and dismantled it to almost nothing but administrative positions.

Almost overnight, the government lost hundreds of highly professional and extremely competent investigators through reductions in force. Many of us were either forced out of federal service or to retire early.

I was lucky and transferred to another agency. Others stayed on and became a part owner of the early USIS organization. They cashed it in when the still highly reputable USIS was bought by a large conglomerate in 2007 for billions of dollars. Many veteran investigators left at that point and were then replaced by investigators from other outside sources. The experience, ethics and personal pride that were inherent in USIS went too apparently.

USIS was initially comprised of former OFI staff and investigators, who took great pride in their work, and did so knowing that the national security depended upon their professional ability and the quality of their work.

However, after USIS was formed time and attrition of experienced staff, and OPM's reliance on the federal contracting process (which is a train wreck in and of itself) to monitor a critical national security process eroded that standard and allowed corporate greed and ambition to take over.

The Department of Justice's recent investigative report uncovered that USIS was "flushing" or dumping cases since 2008 without review in order to bolster USIS production numbers, get paid bonuses and increase USIS overall corporate revenue. News articles cited a report by the Government Accountability Office that said an absence of guidelines and standards for conducting background investigations didn't exist. These revelations caused many of us OFI "old timers" to shake our heads in an "I told you so" manner. Those standards existed back in the 1990s and well before that even. We know this because many of us were involved in writing them!

In fact, complete OFI investigator and reviewer handbooks existed then on how to conduct and review background investigations, completely, legally and ethically. Those apparently have been cast into oblivion as a result of poor oversight and management on the part of OPM.

Many former OFI staffers have been discussing this whole debacle online over the past few months and all have agreed that, as we predicted 20 years ago, this political "feather in the cap" that came from the NPR has come back to haunt all of us.

Background investigations are vitally important and anyone involved with personnel security in the national security field acknowledges that fact. It takes significant experience and skill to conduct these investigations, to review them intelligently to determine if they were conducted thoroughly and within the law and ensure any developed evidence that calls into question an individual's claimed qualifications, honesty, integrity or allegiance to this country has been resolved positively or negatively.

Proof that OPM's system failed on many levels

USIS aborted those critical elements of the job and abandoned their ethics and allegiance to this country's security, solely for profit. The evidence in those reports proves that.

OPM's recent decision to take back the final review of federal background investigations conducted by USIS and other vendors working for OPM is also proof that their system failed on many levels! But how long will it take to get that skill set and proficiency back that once existed?

It seems this long forgotten political decision originating out of the NPR has been significantly overlooked as a potential main cause of this failure by those reporting and investigating this mess. None of the investigations or reports conducted by DOJ, the OPM IG, or the GAO on USIS say anything about the OFI even existing or mentions the extensive investigation standards that were once in place and it is not known why.

If OPM is truly committed to making significant improvements and regaining the integrity of the background investigative process, OPM must look back to its former organization, the OFI, and review how OFI did the job of conducting high-quality investigations from start to finish.

OPM should be reaching out to find former OFI investigations management staff to assist in rebuilding that organization. Many of us are still out here, and I believe many would be willing to return and help OPM rebuild the process we were so proud of being a part of.

Once again, sacrificing security under the guise of saving taxpayer dollars has caused potentially grave harm to our country. It raises the question, why does the American citizen tolerate those individuals playing politics in Washington messing with our national security?

The American citizen must NEVER allow elected officials to place national security related functions on the political chopping block. It must be kept near the top of the budget priority list, be robust, and kept as an inherently federal responsibility. The Israelis get it. The Italians get it, as do dozens of other foreign countries. Now it seems OPM kind of gets it, but the horse is out of the barn and now they have to get it back in. But will Capitol Hill give them the tools they need to do it? Aye, there is the rub!

Matthew Baum has 27 years of federal service, including six years with OPM's Office of Federal Investigations. His other assigned duties during his public service have involved national security as well as personnel, IT, information and physical security program implementation and management. Matthew is currently serving as a lead HIPAA security specialist at the Veterans Health Administration, within the Department of Veterans Affairs.

MORE FROM THE SPECIAL REPORT, TRUST REDEFINED:

Insider threat programs must find the right 'trust but verify' balance

Feds fast-tracking new system for keeping tabs on cleared personnel

Telework brings out underlying trust issues in federal workforce

Full coverage: Trust Redefined