Wall Street Journal
August 29, 2013
Firm That Vetted Snowden Defends Its Work
By Dion Nissenbaum
WASHINGTON — The private company that conducted the last background check of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden said it was the federal government’s responsibility to catch any problems with its 2011 investigation of the man who has said he leaked top-secret documents.
US Investigations Services LLC defended its work after a review by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence concluded that the Falls Church, Va.-based company conducted an inadequate examination of Mr. Snowden for the renewal of his high-security clearance.
Mr. Snowden still had that clearance when he was hired early this year by Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., where he used his position as a systems administrator at an NSA office in Hawaii to obtain top-secret documents detailing America’s global surveillance system.
USIS declined to discuss the federal review on Tuesday. But it said Wednesday that a Wall Street Journal article painted “an inaccurate view” of its role in the case. While USIS said it couldn’t “refute or verify” the government’s conclusions, the company said in a statement the federal government didn’t raise any concerns at the time about its work in February 2011 on the five-year “periodic reinvestigation” of Mr. Snowden. The company said the NSA, not USIS, was ultimately responsible for approving or denying Mr. Snowden’s security clearance.
USIS is the largest of three firms conducting background investigations under a multiyear federal contract awarded in 2011 that is worth nearly $2.5 billion. USIS received $200 million last year for such work.
In Mr. Snowden’s case, USIS said, the federal government accepted its findings without asking for a deeper investigation. After Mr. Snowden came forward in June as the source of stories on top-secret U.S. surveillance programs, USIS said that it had been told by the federal Office of Personnel Management, the agency responsible for overseeing most federal background checks, that “all standards were met” in its 2011 investigation.
But the review of Mr. Snowden’s case by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence concluded that USIS fell short. A report said USIS failed to track down enough character references for Mr. Snowden and that investigators didn’t do enough to examine concerns raised during the review.
As a result, the examination concluded, the 2011 investigation “did not present a comprehensive picture of Mr. Snowden.”
The NSA, the Office of Personnel Management and that agency’s inspector general, which has been investigating USIS, all declined to comment.
Federal officials started looking at the company’s practices in late 2011 after a fired USIS employee alleged that the company was cutting corners, according to former USIS employees. Earlier this summer, a federal grand jury opened a criminal investigation into USIS practices, according to people familiar with the matter.
U.S. lawmakers who have raised concerns about the security screening process said the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s report is further evidence that the system needs to be overhauled.
“As we learn more about this investigation, it is obvious that the system we have in place is inadequate to protect our national security,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D., Mont.), a member of the Homeland Security Committee who is part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers pushing a bill to impose greater oversight of the process.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, (D., Mo.) said the review helped expose “critical problems that put American lives as risk.”
“It’s clear that there were failures of execution by the contractors tasked with performing Mr. Snowden’s background investigation, as well as the government for failing to perform adequate oversight,” said Ms. McCaskill, who is working with Mr. Tester on the bill. “It’s equally clear that these problems are systematic and extend well beyond any individual case.”