Background Investigations

'Cash Register' Culture Plagues Private Security Clearance Investigation Companies

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal published a scathing review of the security clearance investigation process at US Investigations Services, LLC. The company is at the center of renewed scrutiny of security clearance investigations,  particularly investigations that cleared both notorious leaker Edward Snowden and navy shooter Aaron Alexis.

A federal grand jury is currently investigating USIS, in an ongoing investigation that began months before it was revealed that the company performed the April 2011 investigation of Edward Snowden, as well as a 2007 investigation of Aaron Alexis.

Former employees have come forward to criticize management within the company, who they say pushed cases forward for financial gain. Scrutiny is focused on a Grove City, Pa. field office, and a manager who later became the company’s CEO. Employees who complained about the process say they were reprimanded or threatened with being fired.

Financial incentives to push cases forward as well as government pressure to decrease clearance backlog collided to produce a system that was all about pushing cases forward and less about quality. As USIS pushed more cases forward, they also earned more contracts, including a 2010 multi-year, multi-billion contract with the Office of Personnel Management.

Read more in the Wall Street Journal report here.

Comment Archive

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    Surprise, surprise. Now let’s see if Congress brings real reform to this issue.

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    Geez, who would’ve predicted that OPM contractors owned by private equity firms would’ve based everything on greater and greater profits? In the case of security background investigations it is particularly problematic because the individual investigator is directly tied to profits. And this is also where the integrity of the investigation lies. I see no way it doesn’t devolve into– to a greater or lesser degree– what article details. They need to insource it, bottomline.

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    Hey Guys,

    I need some career advice. I was an Investigator at USIS for one year and have been working as a Reviewer for more than five years in the federal government. Now, I have been given the opportunity to become an Adjudicator of background investigations at another government agency. My only problem is that the new agency wants to pay me less money than I’m making now. It’s about a 6 grand difference. I’d be going from a GS 12 to a pay band which is equivalent to an 11, but I would be at the top of the pay band. Then next year, I’d go back to a GS 12 equivalent pay band. I’ve already gone back and forth with HR about trying to get more money and they are not budging.

    My questions are: is this a good move for me? After becoming an Adjudicator, I would have experience working background investigations from beginning to end. My other question is: what are the possibilities for my next career move after I put in some time as an Adjudicator? I really want to know if having all of this experience in background investigations is good for my career and where I can go after being an Adjudicator. Thanks.

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    Darrow – Your are correct in that the contractors have based everything on profits and bonuses for management. Although the individual investigator may be linked to this process, it is not the root cause of the problem and the investigator gains nothing from the bonuses. You appear to be accusing the investigators of lacking the integrity to conduct the investigations. Although the article states 8 USIS investigators have been convicted of fraud, USIS has 2500. The article does not mention the 7 OPM investigators also convicted of fraud (OPM IG figures) and OPM has 800. The field investigator (contractor or Fed) is not the problem but takes the brunt of the heat if something goes wrong. In-sourcing is fine but will cost 3 times what it is now and will not insure any better work unless the system is overhauled – top down.
    I and many other investigators I know are hoping USIS is held accountable, the focus changed to quality investigations not just meeting OPM report writing standards and OPM is directed to change their priorities so that the filed investigator can get the information necessary to conduct a quality investigation.
    Every aspect of the process must be examined, from the customer (NSA, DOD etc), to OPM, to the contractors before any meaningful change can be done.

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    NY Inv,

    I’m not suggesting pressure to complete cases leads to fabricating. Just as pressure in marriage doesn’t lead to hiring a hit man. Cutting corners doesn’t imply fabricating. It means not pursuing things as you would expect would be done in a security clearance interview for a national security position. The company gains nothing by the investigator tearing into the Subject’s background, grilling him on every little thing, and going beyond the standard OPM questions. I learned that in Subject interviews stuff came when you went off script, did a little acting and a little bluffing. But I also realized this is not what is required or even desired by OPM. In fact, after I got an OPM complaint by a Subject in an LBI (Fed empl) and had to explain my actions in a PRSI in questioning the Subject’s foreign relative’s activities (which she refused to tell me and apparently it didn’t matter to OPM), I realized I have nothing to gain by trying to uncover stuff. Certainly not the company. And a lot of the stuff dredged up often didn’t always fit neatly into the standard [OPM IHB 22.45a-88.2.1c.6] definition of an issue. Thinking back to interviews and typing up ROIs, it seemed all I was interested in was covering required questions and standard disclaimers. Facts were pertinent so long as they were part of disclaimers because this is what the reports were based on. I quickly discovered that these disclaimer questions don’t lead to people telling you stuff or revealing stuff. “Does the Subject intend to engage in such activity in the future? Could this information be used against you to blackmail you? Did you notice any monitoring by a foreign government when you traveled to Toronto for your cousin’s wedding?” But this is what OPM wants and this is what the company wants. And a lot of it. So this is what an investigator who wants to be good provides. It is like doing a medical examination by showing up and asking a bunch of standard pre-packaged questions. And then writing a medical report with all the disclaimers. “Subject gets sniffles sometimes on cold mornings (exact dates unknown but usually during winter season). These sniffles have never led to the Subject dying.”… “Source said the Subject sometimes coughs (exact dates unknown) and when Subject is drinking water and it goes down the wrong pipe it leads to Subject coughing more (exact dates and exact amount of coughs unknown).”

    Getting back to NY Inv’s main point, I agree that investigators on the private side are every bit as good as the Federal side. My point was that having contractor companies owned by private equity firms (who have reps monitoring company ops– as described in article) is disastrous. Sometimes having a non-profit, government bureaucracy is preferable. This a perfect case for that. I think a possible solution to keeping private contract investigators while eliminating the corrupting influence of profit motive is to do what was done in TSA with some private-run screening at some airports. They allowed the airport to keep private screeners but they saw to it that ALL the managers and federal security director staff was TSA (Fed). All overall operations decisions and oversight is done by the TSA (Feds). No pushing and cutting corners for profit.

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    When will contractors began to see cases assigned again?

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    The rescheduled hearing on “The Navy Yard Tragedy: Examining Government Clearances and Background Checks” is supposed to take place tomorrow at 10:00 am in room SD-342, Dirksen Senate Office Building. I see that the Acting Director who is also the OPM General Counsel will be testifying instead of Mr. Miller.

    The tone of the hearing should be a good indication of just how serious the politicians are about any type of serious reform in the “entire” process.

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    I unknowingly only went back 7 years on my sf 86 for alcohol related arrest. When talking to the investigator he asked it I had anymore arrest ever. I told him yea I had some that was over the seven years ago. We discussed those and I was 100% honest about everything but I didn’t put it on sf 86. I have had 3 underage drinking tickets and then 2 duis. These were all stupid mistakes and I have since grew up and don’t do that stuff anymore. What are the chance my clearance will get denied.

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    I think I will be changing my name to Former Investigator since I am no longer an active Investigator. I am happy that I am not working for USIS right now.

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    Don’t know about you folks but I found the hearing very interesting. I also see that the Director and Assistant Director of External Affairs for FIS accompanied Ms. Kaplan, and Mr. Miller to the hearing.

    Interesting that Seattle won’t provide police reports but yet 5 U.S.C. 9101 “Access to criminal history records for national security and other purposes” seems to say that the government can have access to those very same reports. Does anyone know if Seattle charges a fee for copies of police reports?

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    Former Fed: Both Seattle P.D. and King County S.O. have charged fees for doing name checks since at least the mid- to late-1980s. DSS and OPM chose not to pay the fees and therefore was not provided any records by Seattle P.D. Kaplan kept saying that Seattle P.D. wouldn’t provide arrest records and that Seattle P.D. referred OPM to some consolidated state criminal court index. But Kaplan never mentioned anything about the fees or OPM’s choice not to pay the fees to get the arrest records from Seattle P.D.

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    I’m surprised there are still some depts. doing it for free. These PD’s simply do not have the resources to be running 10’s of thousands of checks per year. Just imagine how many large metro areas do in a year. Seems like a simple fix, supply funds to pay or quit hiring a GS 15 administrator and SES every hour and use those funds, or, quit clearing 3 million people a year, when only a third need them.

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    Shooting at LAX. How long before they blame FIS or one of the contract companies for that to.

    But, hopefully it will prompt a look at who TSA hires. Haven’t met too many shining stars.

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    TSA cases are always nightmare cases. What else are you going to get for 12 bucks a hour.

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    Has anyone read the proposed “Enhanced Security Clearance Act of 2013” Does anyone understand it?

    It seems the bill would make OPM change the CVS database into something it was never intended to be–a repository for investigative data/reports. Even if OPM were able to do that, I have no idea of how this “enhanced security clearance system” would work.

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    As a contractor(Independant) for USIS, I have not had a case assigned since 07/02/13. Wondering if they have put the brakes on cases, or is work just drying up in an area that was normally very busy.

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    Agreed Mr. Henderson, the bill doesn’t really make sense.

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    I am ft with usis. We have been directed to take time off for the past three weeks. There has not been much work. My area is typically extremely busy. We never anticipated this happening.I’m not sure if my job is in jeopardy or what. I don’t know what to think.

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    Does anyone know of groups I can join in the background investigator field, homeland security, federal government, etc? Just trying to figure out ways to gain more of a network in the field. Thanks.

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    All companies having the same issue. Until the government pulls their heads out of their asses, this will be the norm for a little longer IMO.

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    I’m not a member, but know a few who are.

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    I am hearing some rumblings about layoffs at USIS. Anyone else hear anything?

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    Haven’t heard of layoffs at USIS but have heard that directed PTO is spreading. Don’t know if this is a general slowdown because of sequester. (DOD has suspended most PPR) or OPM weening USIS off and shifting more work to themselves and the other contractors. Rumors abound but nothing concrete. USIS must be worried about the DOJ investigation that could be a precursor to criminal charges or a huge fine.

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    DOD has suspended most PPR? Great, that means another PR backlog and more TDYs in the future. Glad I’m not with the big company anymore though.

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    Haven’t heard OPM turning up the work, sequestration and end of fiscal year slowed us way down. I imagine work will be low through holidays.

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    Darrow should be in management.


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    The link is not working. You may have to search Altegrity in Google News to find the WSJ article. Sorry about that. The title of the article is “Firm Is Overhauled Amid Federal Probe”. Basically Altegrity, USIS’ parent company is no longer in existence.

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    Altegrity did have three companies – USIS, Hireright & Kroll. Now each is a separate company owned by the equity firm. Looks like the equity form is getting ready for a massive lawsuit and only USIS will go down and not take what was the rest of Altegrity with it. How is it that a business can divest itself to protect assets but if your parent enters a nursing home, the government can go back 7 years to take any asset they transferred. Rats leaving a sinking ship but this time the rats are the admirals & captains taking all the lifeboats with them.

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    I imagine this is not a good sign. The investigators should definitely hope for the best, but be preparing for the worst.

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    IMO, USIS did nothing wrong in the two cases which have brought scrutiny to USIS and the BI process. Yeah, they might have run the BI process like Steve Jobs would’ve, but the real blame has to be Seattle PD in the Navy shooter case and the CIA in the Snowden. Frankly, I think Congress ought to see to it that either Seattle PD (and any other PD– state, city, town, university) be 100% cooperative or 0% of federal dollars we flow their way. Same thing for court houses, companies, etc. This directly related to national security. No playing around. Congress has the federal purse strings.

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    A federal law has been in place for years that allows the government to access criminal records at the state and local level for national security and related purposes. As written the law allows the local agencies to charge a “reasonable” fee to cover the costs of providing those records. The simple fact is that DSS and OPM made a decision years ago that is was not cost effective to pay the fees to get police records for inclusion in an every investigation.

    Technically USIS may, or may not have done everything correctly in the Alexis, and Snowden cases, but unfortunately the public will never know for sure. USIS is on the hot seat now for contract fraud. The Alexis and Snowden cases just seem to intensify the publics interest in the underlying issue.

    I don’t know about you but I get the impression from the congressional testimony I have heard so far is that the underlying issues are conflicting policies regarding what information may, or may not be pertinent to an individual investigation, and contract oversight that seems to be more focused on quantity than quality. Congress mandates an investigation must be complete in X number of days, and as long as the contractor is hitting that number the agency doesn’t seem to care how they are achieving their goal.

    Sadly, which ever way this turns out, it is going to be the individuals who actually do the work that suffer the most, and not the individuals responsible for seeing that the program should runs the way it is supposed to run.

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    […] particular unit I was assigned to. There have been calls for reassessing how clearances are done after recent failures in who received clearances. Personal financial issues play a big part in getting and keeping a […]

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    The U*** layoff is scary news. I believe more are on the way.