The U.S. government is studying whether it can scour social media websites for clues about potential risks from workers such as Edward Snowden and the Washington Navy Yard shooter.
Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor who leaked government secrets, and Aaron Alexis, who shot and killed 12 people, had security clearances. The cases have exposed a flawed system of vetting such employees, some of whom are slipping through the cracks.
The pilot studies, which looked at the feasibility of using automated records checks as well as social-media websites, have turned up “actionable information,” Brian Prioletti, an assistant director in the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, said in testimony prepared for a Senate hearing today.
The tests also “indicate that retrieving, analyzing and processing the data is likely to be resource intensive,” he said.
Prioletti is one of five government officials testifying before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee more than a month after the Navy Yard shootings.
Lawmakers want to know how “a troubled, unstable individual possessed a security clearance from the U.S. government,” Senator Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat who heads the committee, said as he opened the hearing.
The Snowden case as well as documents released by U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning also have led members of Congress to question “the quality of background checks,” he said.
“Many national security experts have long argued that the security clearance process is antiquated and in need of modernization,” Carper said. “Given recent events, I think we have to ask whether the system is fundamentally flawed.”
Alexis, a 34-year-old subcontractor employee who was shot dead by police on Sept. 16, obtained a secret-level clearance from the Navy in March 2008 and kept it even with three arrests and a history of mental illness.
“It’s unlikely that a stricter clearance process would have prevented a deranged individual from committing murder,” said Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the committee. Still, the Navy Yard massacre should prompt the government to review the process, including whether it approves too many and classifies too much information, he said.
Snowden, a former Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp. employee who leaked information on U.S. surveillance programs, had a top-secret clearance.
Almost 5 million federal and contract workers have clearances. Those with top-secret clearances get re-investigated once every five years, with less frequent reviews at lower clearance levels.
“The time interval between periodic re-investigations leaves the U.S. government potentially uninformed as to behavior that poses a security or counterintelligence risk,” Prioletti said.
Both Snowden and Alexis were vetted by contractor USIS, a unit of Falls Church, Virginia-based Altegrity Inc., that handles many of the government’s background checks. Those reviews are required for clearances.
The Justice Department has joined a whistle-blower lawsuit against the company. USIS is accused in the complaint in federal court in Montgomery, Alabama, of failing to perform quality control reviews in connection with its background investigations for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence is working on a “continuous evaluation” tool that would ensure timely sharing of information across agencies, Prioletti said.
“Damage assessments regarding individuals involved in unauthorized disclosures of classified information or acts of workplace violence have uncovered information that was not discovered during the existing security clearance process,” Prioletti said in the prepared remarks. “Timely knowledge of such information might have prompted a security review or increased monitoring of the individual.”
Government employees and contractors holding security clearances would be subject to random background checks under a proposal yesterday from two Democratic and two Republican senators.
The draft measure would initiate a review of public records and other databases to identify any information that might affect individuals currently holding a security clearance, according to the office of Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat.
–With assistance from Timothy R. Homan in Washington. Editors: Steve Geimann, Jodi Schneider