Reality Winner Arrest Shows US Security Clearance Process Needs Improvement
By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security
Last month, another government contractor was arrested for mishandling classified material by giving top-secret National Security Agency documents to an online news organization.
Air Force veteran and contractor Reality Leigh Winner, who held a top secret clearance, was accused of leaking highly classified information to a New York-based news organization. She copied a top secret document and mailed it to The Intercept.
The Intercept’s subsequent story described Russian efforts to use hacking techniques to target employees of a company that provided technical support to various states’ voting agencies.
Justice Department Speaks Out on Winner Leaks
Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein said that investigators’ fast work “allowed us to quickly identify and arrest the defendant. Releasing classified material without authorization threatens our nation’s security and undermines public faith in government. People who are trusted with classified information and pledge to protect it must be held accountable when they violate that obligation.”
After Winner’s arrest, a search of her social media account revealed numerous references to her political activism. Her account showed that Winner supported the presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, made disparaging comments about President Trump, and expressed support for the Taliban and Iran.
How Are Contractors Vetted Before Receiving a Clearance?
Prior to obtaining a clearance, contractors undergo a background check investigation. Before 2016, the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Investigative Services (OPM-FIS) oversaw approximately 95% of all background investigations, according to the Congressional Research Service.
On October 1, 2016, President Obama transferred responsibility for investigative work and related services from OPM-FIS to the newly established National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB). Like OPM-FIS, the NBIB conducts some of the investigative work itself and contracts the rest to private firms.
This change to the NBIB was the result of the gaps in the security clearance process that resulted in the massive leak by Eric Snowden.
The move to NBIB was heralded as a more efficient way to protect data after the Chinese hacked the OPM and compromised 21.5 million files of personnel information.
Arrest of Winner Reveals Need for Improved Background Checks
It appears that further changes are required in the background investigation process.
But Winner and Snowden were not alone in leaking classified material. Last year, the FBI arrested a former NSA contractor working for Booz Allen Hamilton, the same company where Snowden worked.
In February 2017, the FBI indicted NSA contractor Harold T. Martin III, who allegedly stole and disclosed highly classified computer codes. These codes allow NSA to hack into the networks of foreign governments.
The New York Times reported that according to court documents, the FBI discovered thousands of pages of documents as well as dozens of computers or other electronic devices in Martin’s home and car. A large amount of those materials was classified.
The digital devices contained “many terabytes of information,” according to FBI documents. The FBI also discovered classified documents that had been posted online, including computer code, officials said. Some of the documents were produced in 2014.
Contractors Taking Shortcuts in Security Investigations
A few contractors have had legal difficulties for taking short cuts and misreporting the progress of background checks for the various agencies needing clearances for their personnel.
In September 2014, Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ) and five other members of Congress complained about the poor performance of USIS, a Virginia-based contractor and investigative company for U.S. government agencies.
“The company is facing fraud charges from the U.S. Justice Department for ‘dumping’ 665,000 background check cases without conducting proper reviews,” the lawmakers said. “Considering their past record, and these worrisome allegations, we believe the stakes are too high to allow USIS to be put in charge of one of our most important border security programs.”
USIS subsequently lost its contract to perform background investigations and went out of business.
In March, Washington Technology reported on the backlog of security clearances due to the skyrocketing number of security investigations. “In a congressional hearing on February 2, officials said the backlog was ‘more than half a million investigations.’ All signs indicate it is still going up,” the online magazine said.
The story indicates that there are too few people and resources to handle the growth of security checks.
Antiquated Security Procedures Hamper Investigations
The government currently uses an antiquated, time-consuming background investigations process. Investigators ask the same questions they did 40 years ago, often going door to door and relying on face-to-face meetings with neighbors and friends. The government still relies too much on paper records and closed systems for collecting and sharing information.
In 2014, Greg Rinckey of the Washington, D.C., law firm Tully Rinckey PLLC, which represents clients with security clearance issues, noted that security investigators “have the profitability incentive and sometimes self-motivation to speed the process along. And with all this hoopla spotlighting the issue, anyone working on security clearances is now moving more slowly.”
“Are they taking a closer look?” Rinckey asked rhetorically. He noted that face-to-face interviews are more likely than database checks to uncover employee problems involving trust or mental health.
“Are we going back to the backlogs they had in 2003?” he questioned. “The bigger question becomes, are there too many people holding security clearances? Does everyone who has one need one?”
The number of people with security clearances was one of the concerns raised by Washington Post reporter Dana Priest in 2010, when she wrote an expose for the “Top Secret Nation” project. That article examined the explosion of classified clearances since 9/11.
It’s also strange that there is no reciprocity between agencies. It is amazing to find that one agency will not accept a clearance from another agency.
These issues are a small sample of the security clearance problem. Unless there is a more through and detailed approach by the federal government, we will continue to have leaks by contractors like Snowden and Winner.
If we don’t address this problem promptly, U.S. national security will continue to be at risk. Covert intelligence officers and American military forces could also be affected.