Here’s How Edward Snowden Got ‘Top Secret’ Clearance
Policy + Politics

Here’s How Edward Snowden Got ‘Top Secret’ Clearance

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

A Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee met Thursday afternoon to examine the government’s process for granting security clearance.

The purpose of the meeting was to figure out how someone like Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker, could get access to some of the most secret information in the country.

The subcommittee failed in that regard: Merton Miller, associate director of investigations at the Office of Personnel, said he had no information on Snowden’s specific case. OPM Inspector General Patrick McFarland said he did have information on Snowden, but couldn’t reveal it to the committee just yet.

That’s not to say that the committee lacked revelation. Six witnesses and three lawmakers revealed a security clearance system so broken that it would be comical if a 29-year-old wasn’t hiding in Hong Kong and leaking American secrets to the press.

They include:

  • 87 percent of background checks are never fully completed. OPM uses the information it has to make a judgment on whether to approve these checks.
  • There are no uniform guidelines across the government for different levels of clearance. This means that top-secret clearance at one agency means something completely different at another.
  • Within each agency, there are no strict guidelines for determining security clearance.
  • USIS, a private contractor, conducts 65 percent of all U.S. government background checks.
  • USIS, which conducted a background check on Snowden, is now under investigation by OPM’s IG for failing to conduct proper background checks.
  • OPM has already paid USIS $200 million this year.
  • The $1-billion-dollar fund that OPM uses to pay for background checks has never been audited.
  • OPM’s IG said they have not been granted access to documentation on the fund.
  • Miller said the documentation did not exist.
  • Even if it did exist, OPM’s IG said he didn’t have the staff to audit the fund.
  • OPM’s IG was unable to answer the first two questions he was asked without extensive consultation with members of the audience.
  • One question was passed from one witness, then to another, who called someone named Stanley Sims out of the audience to answer it.
  • I didn’t catch Sims’ title, but he did say there are more than 10,000 private facilities in the United States that have security clearance.
  • Eighteen OPM investigators have been convicted of falsifying information contained in investigations they’ve conducted. Eleven work for OPM, while the other seven work for private contractors.
  • Forty other investigators are currently being investigated for falsifying background checks.
  • When asked if there are more than 40, IG McFarland said, “I believe there may be considerably more. I don't believe we've caught it all by any stretch.”
  • Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) asked Miller why OPM so heavily relied on contractors.
  • He answered because they were cheaper than hiring government workers.
  • She asked him for a cost-benefit analysis proving this.
  • He said there is no cost benefit analysis.
  • McCaskill again asked how he knew they were cheaper.
  • Because they are cheaper, Miller said.
  • “I'm tired of this assumption that contractors are cheaper. I just think it's easier,” McCaskill then said.

With that, Thursday’s matinee of the absurd lowered its curtain.

Little was revealed about Snowden. But the hearing did prove what McCaskill said in her opening statement: OPM is a “government agency where there is rampant fraud, limited accountability, and no respect for taxpayer dollars.” It also revealed how easy it was for Snowden to get access to the nation’s most sacred secrets.

“This situation we have with Snowden,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-MO) said, “we shouldn't be surprised at all.”