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This blog post was contributed by attorney Rosana Escobar Brown. While Ms. Brown is not an attorney with Price Benowitz LLP, we are very happy to have her as a regular poster to our criminal law blogs. Any opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author.
The federal contractor who vetted some high-profile government deflectors has come under intense scrutiny for questionable business practices. The formerly-named United States Investigative Services, now called USIS, which provides nearly 65 percent of the background investigations used to grant federal security clearances, provided investigative clearance for both the D.C. Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis, and for NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, reports say (NPR).
Alexis, a military contractor for the Navy and a former Navy reservist, shot and killed 12 people before being gunned down himself at Naval Sea Systems Command headquarters in Washington last week, by opening fire into a crowded cafeteria. Snowden, a former NSA contractor who leaked documents to British reporters, revealed NSA surveillance practices involving U.S. telephone and internet activity. Both individuals were granted secret security clearances by USIS.
USIS, a Virginia-based company that was once a part of the Office of Personnel Management, split from the agency in 1996 and became a private government contractor. USIS handles government background investigations for more than half of all Office of Personnel Management clearances, in addition to other agencies (Washington Post). USIS initially denied that they had performed Alexis’ investigation, but later found they had indeed performed the check on behalf of the Department of Defense. USIS performed the 2011 investigation into Snowden, which upon discovery sparked an OPM investigation into the company (Washington Post). Now, in light of the Aaron Alexis information, USIS may face a congressional investigation.
It appears that Alexis, whose background check was completed by USIS in 2008, had a prior arrest in 2004 for shooting out the tires of a neighbor’s car, in addition to some violent episodes and mental health issues following his clearance. (CBS)
USIS scrutiny is being fueled by two recent class-action lawsuits filed by USIS employees in California. The employees claimed to have been forced to work many hours of unpaid overtime and through unpaid breaks, and alleged that USIS practices are incompatible with the government’s base guidelines for performing adequate background checks. The company is also under criminal investigation for possibly misleading the government about the thoroughness of its investigations capability. Some of USIS’ individual employees have already been convicted for falsifying records (Bloomberg).
Although there is no indication that Alexis’ background investigation was affected by shoddy USIS practices, it is unclear whether more efficient practices would have altered his eligibility based upon his prior arrest. At a minimum, the Department of Defense should have initiated a second review following Alexis’ clearance, due to later-arising reports of weapons violence and mental illness.
In addition, nothing indicates whether Snowden would ever have been prevented from obtaining a security clearance. Reports that raised questions about USIS practices rely only upon the discovery of shortcuts used in Snowden’s investigative process.
With more than 5,000 federal employees operating under USIS-backed security clearances, investigators are trying to find out just how the questionable practices of USIS could have jeopardized federal secrets and safety. Whether USIS will be subject to criminal charges as a commercial entity remains to be seen.