Federal contract employee reviewed 15,152 security clearances in a month, audit says

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Auditors for the office that oversees the approval of all federal security clearances have apparently located the most productive federal contract worker in America.
An unnamed employee at U.S. Investigative Services (known as USIS) managed to review a startling 15,152 clearance cases in a single month during fiscal 2013, according to an Office of Personnel Management inspector general’s report.

USIS is a private firm spun off from the government that does the arduous work of checking the loyalty and integrity of applicants for security clearances. Clearances are supposed to be issued only after qualified officials review a completed package of data drawn from security investigations.

OPM pays USIS to verify that the right data has been assembled into a single package for final review. Figuring a 40-hour work week, the employee reviewed 1 ½ cases a minute, a pace the OPM’s watchdog called, with some understatement, “abnormal.”

It is not clear if the person still works at USIS, or whether he or she was ever punished — or rewarded — for such quick work. Nor is it known if OPM questioned the diligence of the work and asked to be repaid. Both USIS and OPM declined to say.

The two entities — still bound together by a continuing contract — are essentially in duck-and-cover mode in the wake of a Jan. 22 Justice Department filing that accused USIS of deliberately defrauding the government from March 2008 through at least September 2012, by pretending it conducted quality data reviews that actually never occurred. The department said the firm did this as matter of official policy, motivated by greed.

In its response at the time, USIS said the allegations “relate to a small group of individuals over a specific time period” and that it has new leadership and better oversight of its workers now. Allegations against the firm attracted particular notice because one of those whose application it reviewed was Edward Snowden.

The new revelation of rote reviews is noteworthy in part because the actions in question fall outside the period mentioned by government prosecutors in their court filing. But the inspector general’s report also revealingly describes how OPM and its security clearance contractors are using software that flushes security clearance applications past internal reviews after 30 days — whether they are complete or not, a practice OPM calls “auto-release.”

It says the practice is “a necessary fail-safe to eliminate workflow backlogs and move work along in deference to timeliness mandates.” That’s a reference to Congress’ requirement that the agency process 90 percent of clearance cases within 60 days — including 40 days for a background investigation and 20 days for review.

The deadline was set to benefit applicants, but multiple reviews have shown that it has caused the agency and its contractors — which often cannot conduct complex investigations that quickly — to cut corners.
The report noted that contractors are “not conducting a pre-review of all investigative items as required.” It also said a sampling of contract reviewers and support personnel suggested that they may lack adequate training. “It is clear that USIS lacks internal controls over the retention of training documentation, as they could not provide the required … documentation for almost half of the personnel we reviewed,” it stated.

USIS spokesman Patrick Scanlan said the company had no comment on the contents of the report, nor did OPM spokeswoman Lindsey S. O’Keefe. She also declined to say how many clearances USIS is presently processing and where those applicants want to work in the federal government.

OPM’s director, Katherine Archuleta, said in a prepared statement that contractors do not conduct quality reviews anymore — the work has been federalized (again) — and that officials at OPM “appreciate the OIG’s diligence on this matter.” One of her aides also claimed, without allowing her name to be used, that audits and inspections of contractors have been increased and that unnamed USIS officials were removed from their contract work.

But OPM also told the inspector general that it is only “exploring” making changes in the software that flushes applications past the reviewers after a prescribed deadline. It said its officials would “recommend” to USIS that “it consider reevaluating its internal controls” to determine how to conduct better oversight of its reviewers and validate their training.

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