National Security

Security Contractor Reviews 15,152 Cases in a Month, Audit Says

Inspector general notes rate as "abnormal."

Auditors for the office that oversees the approval of all federal security clearances have apparently located the most productive federal contractor in America.

An unnamed employee at U.S. Investigative Services (USIS) -- the same private company that processed Edward Snowden’s clearance to work for the NSA -- 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 investigating the loyalty and integrity of applicants for sensitive federal jobs. Qualified officials are supposed to review information drawn from security investigations before granting some security clearance. OPM pays USIS to verify that the right data was compiled into a single package for final review. Figuring a 40-hour work week, the employee cited in the IG report reviewed 1.5 cases a minute -- a pace the OPM’s watchdog called “abnormal.”

It is not clear if the person still works at USIS, since the company declined to say. OPM said on June 16 that the worker no longer works on the agency’s contract.

The two entities -- still bound together by the purchase of “support services” and investigative fieldwork -- 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 never occurred. The Justice Department said USIS did this as matter of official policy, motivated by greed.

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

The report’s revelation of rote reviews is also outside the timeframe delineated in government prosecutors’ January court filing. And it describes how OPM and its contractors use software that flushes security-clearance applications past internal quality reviews after 30 days -- whether complete or not -- a practice OPM calls “auto-release.”

Auto-release is “a necessary fail-safe to eliminate workflow backlogs and move work along in deference to timeliness mandates,” according to OPM. That’s a reference to Congress’s 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. Instead, it has caused OPM 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 contract reviewers and support personnel might not have 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 report’s findings. OPM spokeswoman Lindsey S. O’Keefe 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.

But OPM told the inspector general that it is only “exploring” making changes in the “auto-release” software. It said its officials would “recommend” to USIS that “it consider reevaluating its internal controls” to better oversee reviewers’ work and training.

USIS is continuing to work under two OPM contracts signed in 2011 and is "eligible for new contracts," OPM spokeswoman Jennifer Dorsey said.

This story was originally published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C. 

Joe Raedle/Getty Images


Russia Cuts Gas to Ukraine

Moscow's cancellation of natural gas exports to Kiev ratchets up the pressure on Ukraine -- and is making European leaders nervous about energy supplies.  


Note: This article was updated Monday afternoon to include State Dept. comments and more.

With tensions between Russia and Ukraine at fever pitch, Moscow unsheathed its energy weapon Monday, cutting off natural gas supplies to Ukraine amidst a dispute over billions of dollars in unpaid bills. The gas cutoff, Russia's third in less than a decade, raises concern in Europe that one of its main sources of imported energy could be affected, with few realistic alternatives on the horizon.

A last-ditch effort by the European Union to broker a compromise between Russia and Ukraine broke down Sunday night. Monday morning, Gazprom, the big Russian gas firm, said it halted gas flows to Ukraine and that it won't ship any more until Kiev pays its hefty arrears and then prepays thereafter.

Gazprom said that Ukraine was guilty of "persistent nonpayment," and said Kiev owes it about $4.5 billion. Russian officials said they would only be willing to go back to negotiations if Ukraine settles its outstanding debt. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev blamed Ukraine for the crisis after it rejected "very beneficial, very preferential proposals" from Gazprom.

Ukrainian leaders sounded a defiant note after the shut-off, saying the energy fight was part of a broader offensive by Moscow against the beleaguered country.

"This is not about gas. This is part of the general plan of Russia to destroy Ukraine," said Arseniy Yatseniuk, Ukraine's prime minister, according to the Financial Times. "Ukrainians will not pull $5 billion out of their pockets a year so that Russia can use this money to buy arms, tanks and planes and bomb Ukrainian territory."

European officials, led by European Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger, remained hopeful that the two sides could reach a deal. Europe and Ukraine suggested that Kiev partially pay off its overdue bills and that Gazprom lower its rate. But Gazprom insisted on a higher price for gas deliveries. A spokesperson for Oettinger said he offered Monday to continue mediating the dispute.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called the EU proposal "fair and reasonable" and urged Russia to resume talks with Ukraine over the gas dispute. 

The gas cutoff comes on the heels of heightened tension between the two countries, after pro-Russian separatists shot down a Ukrainian military transport plane Saturday, killing 49 people. In response, protesters attacked the Russian embassy in Kiev, sparking outrage in Moscow.

For Europe, the gas cutoff is a reminder of the continent's reliance on Russian energy -- and the risk of supply shortages. In the winter of 2006, and again in 2009, Russia cut off gas exports to Ukraine, which affected European customers as well. About 15 percent of Europe's natural gas comes through Ukraine.

The shut-off is a reminder of Russia's willingness to flex its energy muscles to cow other nations. At the same time, after decades of relying largely on Europe as an export market for natural gas, Russia is increasingly looking east. In May, it inked a massive deal with China, and Russian officials hope to land a second big contract. That could give Moscow even more leverage in dealing with European gas buyers.

For now, the Russian shut-off hasn't affected flows to Europe, European Union officials said. But natural gas prices spiked in London and Holland on the news of the cutoff.

One big difference from previous gas interruptions is the time of year: Gas demand is much lower in summer than in winter. And storage levels in Ukraine and Europe could keep them running for months. But the energy problem will be acute later this year if the dispute continues and European countries can't replenish their stocks.

"If there's going to be a gas fight, now's the time for it, from Ukraine's perspective," said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who is now at the Brookings Institution. But Russia's tactics will only redouble Europe's efforts to find other sources of energy.

"To the extent that Russia raises questions about its reliability as a gas provider, the more it raises interest in Europe in finding alternate sources" of gas, Pifer said.

In the short term, Kiev's energy options are limited. It can get gas from other European countries, such as Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, but that would meet less than half its annual demand. And there are few other alternatives: Plans to build a terminal to import liquefied natural gas via tanker were revived after the energy fight with Moscow heated up earlier this year, but the country can't import LNG until it is finished.

Many U.S. lawmakers have touted the prospects of tapping the U.S. energy boom to supply friends in Europe and Asia with cheap energy. "This act of aggression further escalates the need for the U.S. to increase its exports of liquefied natural gas to our NATO and European allies," said Rep. Michael Turner (R.-Ohio).

But the United States won't be able to export meaningful volumes of gas until close to the end of the decade. And even if it can ship out enough, LNG is more expensive than Russian gas sent to Europe by pipeline.

Dmitry Serebryakov - AFP - Getty