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Trawl the Internet for red flags, says Congressional report on U.S. security clearances

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By Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. security clearance process that failed to flag former spy agency contractor Edward Snowden and the Washington Navy Yard shooter needs reforms as simple as letting investigators use the Internet and forcing local law enforcement to cooperate, a congressional report said on Tuesday.

The report suggested federal investigators be allowed to tap tools ordinary Americans use to find out about a specific person: Facebook, Twitter and Google.

The Office of Personnel Management’s Investigative Handbook, updated in 2007, places an almost blanket restriction on Internet use, it said, but social media and search sites “contain a treasure trove of information about their users”.

“Congress should force OPM’s investigative practices into the 21st century by allowing investigators to use the Internet and social media sources in particular for the first time,” it said.

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The report was compiled by the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee and reflected closer government scrutiny of the security clearance process and the contractors who carry it out. The report was released before a committee hearing with key figures in the security process.

It was triggered by last September’s killings of 12 people at the Navy Yard. Shooter Aaron Alexis was a Defense Department contract employee who received a “secret” clearance in 2008 despite his involvement in a series of violent incidents and his erratic behavior.

Last month, the Justice Department accused United States Investigations Services, the largest private provider of security checks for the government, of bilking the government of millions of dollars through improper background checks.

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USIS vetted both Alexis and Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who disclosed secrets about U.S. government surveillance before taking refuge in Russia.

The House committee report said Congress had a responsibility to determine how Alexis got clearance despite red flags, which included a warning from his mother to his employer that Alexis had “a history of paranoid episodes and most likely needed therapy.

Much of Alexis’ background information was not passed on to the adjudicator who granted his clearance, the report said. Specifically, his 2004 arrest was not included in the Office of Personnel Management’s background investigative file that went to the Navy, which ultimately granted him clearance twice.

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MORE REGULAR CHECKS NEEDED

The committee, led by Republican U.S. Representative Darrell Issa, said legislative fixes it was considering included requiring continuous evaluation of clearances, which now have to be re-evaluated every five or 10 years.

It also proposed giving government greater access to the mental health information of people holding clearances and ensuring local law enforcement offices fulfill their obligation to provide specific information to background investigators.

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The report said local police departments are now required by law to cooperate in federal security clearance investigations, but more than 450 offices around the country do not, including New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

The OPM is in charge of background investigations for security clearances for non-intelligence personnel. Information compiled by OPM and its contractors is relayed to the agency that requested clearance, which decides whether to grant it.

In prepared testimony before the committee, OPM Director Katherine Archuleta, who has been in the job three months, said that last week she ordered the quality review process be done only by federal employees, not contract workers.

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“We no longer will have contractors participating in our ongoing final federally controlled quality review process,” she said.

The Justice Department lawsuit said USIS failed to perform quality control reviews of its background investigations.

The new CEO of USIS, which said it is cooperating with the government, tried to minimize contractors’ role.

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“It is critical to recognize that USIS and OPM’s other contractors have no role in deciding whether an individual actually receives or retains a security clearance,” Sterling Phillips said in prepared testimony. “We only collect and report information and we do not even make a recommendation.”

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by David Storey and James Dalgleish)

[Image via AFP]


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