Does Privatization of Federal Employee Background Checks Lead to More Security Breaches?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Sterling Phillips, president and CEO of USIS

In the wake of the Washington Navy Yard shooting, the question of who performed the background check on shooter Aaron Alexis—a sub-contractor who had security clearance to perform IT work for the U.S. Navy—has given rise to a larger debate over whether such work should be contracted out to private firms.


Alexis was given access to federal naval shipyards by USIS, a private company paid by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to carry out background checks on contractors.


USIS has been performing this critical work since it was spun off from OPM in July 1996, during the Bill Clinton administration. Essentially, OPM’s security and investigations unit was privatized as USIS, which retained those OPM employees as part of the company.


When the private firm was launched, the government awarded it a three-year non-competitive contract. With 100 active federal contracts under its belt, USIS stands as the government’s largest private contractor handling background checks.


But given what happened with Alexis—as well as another contractor vetted by USIS: Edward Snowden, who leaked classified materials—some critics say background checks should be done by government employees.


“There is absolutely no question that privatization of the process of conducting background checks was a costly mistake,” J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest federal public employees union, told The Washington Post. “The incentives are all wrong for this crucially important government function. Minimizing cost to maximize profits in this context just means failing to take the time or hiring the people necessary to do a thorough job.”


The Post reported that USIS, which performed more than a million background checks for OPM last year, sometimes demands that its workers carrying out background investigations perform as many as 10 reviews in a single day. This workload can result in investigators cutting short their reviews or not asking enough questions in interviews with contractors seeking security clearances.


“It was like wink, wink, do this as fast as humanly possible,” a former unnamed USIS investigator told the Post. “There was this intense pressure to do more and faster.”


Other former employees told the newspaper that USIS staffers often handled sensitive documents without supervision in their homes or at public places like Starbucks.

USIS is currently under criminal investigation for allegedly misleading officials about the thoroughness of its work, claiming they had conducted second, backup, checks on applicants when they hadn’t. Additionally, some of the firm’s former employees have, over the years, been charged with falsifying records.


It’s all the more reason not to parcel out such important work to a private contractor, according to Cox. “If ever there were a good candidate for insourcing, this would be it,” he told the Post.

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Danny Biederman


To Learn More:

Does Profit Motive Affect Security Clearance Investigations? (by Joe Davidson, Washington Post)

Workers at USIS, Which Vetted Alexis and Snowden, Felt Pressure to do More, Faster (by Jia Lynn Yang, Washington Post)

52 Convicted Felons Had Routine Access to U.S. Naval Facilities (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Danny Biederman, AllGov)          

Up to 600,000 Job Seekers a Year Hurt by Flawed FBI Background Records (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)    


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