How Edward Snowden Snuck Through

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Background checks are one of those commodities you typically only realize are flawed when it’s too late, after someone who shouldn’t have been cleared is caught doing some nefarious deed.

As Edward Snowden is traipsing around the world in his effort to avoid the long arm of U.S. justice for leaking classified documents to the media, many people have only one question:

How did this guy get a security clearance?

USIS, the company responsible for most security clearance background checks in the United States—including the background check on Snowden—is reportedly under criminal investigation for systemic failures in its investigations. There were also reportedly some discrepancies found in Snowden’s resume.

Here are three reasons why you shouldn’t be surprised that Snowden slipped through the cracks:

1. They’re asking the wrong questions.

Security clearance investigations are done, in large part, with an inane checklist of questions asked of references concerning a myriad of issues purported to address applicants’ general character and loyalty to the United States.

One of the questions asked of Snowden’s references was something like, “Do you have any reason to suspect that Mr. Snowden has an allegiance to any foreign government over the United States?” These types of boilerplate questions are almost invariably asked brusquely — and with very little attention paid to any nuances in the response of the reference.

While this and the other questions are certainly relevant to a security clearance, I’d bet that only a handful of references in the history of security clearances have ever responded, “Come to think of it, yes.”

The fact is that it’s incredibly difficult to ever truly know about someone’s true character, except after it is too late. It’s much easier to learn about an applicant’s suitability for a position by how honest they are on their resume than by trying to gauge their “allegiance” to the United States.

In short, investigators are asking the wrong questions. Investigations for federal security clearances place too great an emphasis on ephemeral issues, like character and loyalty, to the detriment of fundamental—and verifiable—fact checking of applicants’ job and personal history.

2. Investigating for profit contains a motive to fudge data.

All companies doing investigations for profit have an incentive to make their customers happy.

The U.S. government has a voracious appetite for background checks for its employees working with sensitive information.  If, as in the case of USIS, your main customer happens to be the federal government, and your investigations involve security clearances, churning out successful background checks—even if you make a few mistakes—means higher profit. This is a ready motive for companies performing clearance investigations and their employees to lie or skip steps in the investigation process.

This is not to say that investigations for federal security clearances can’t reliable be performed by contractors. But it is to say that those who argue that contractors are cheaper, or more efficient than government investigators, are missing the point of these investigations.

3. You can’t reliably automate background checks.

It’s no small irony that one of the central arguments made by critics of the NSA spying program detailed by Snowden is equally applicable to why Snowden’s background investigation failed: an investigation involves much more than simply gathering information.

As impressive as the technology is that allows the NSA to draw inferences about connections among billions of datasets, without a human being who can apply some common sense to the process, those inferences might as well be randomly generated.

The same is true of investigations for federal security clearances.

Investigators are tasked with doing a lot of work on a lot of people in a very short amount of time because of the volume of pending security clearances. Because of the emphasis on quantity, quickness and affordability of background checks over their quality, the government has done their best to automate the process and make it the same for each applicant. Investigators are often paid in a piecemeal fashion, such as by the number of interviews they do during each investigation. They are given checklists of where to gather records and how many references they must talk to.

However, applicants are actually very different from one another, and the security concerns vary widely depending on the position the applicant is applying for. For these reasons, there really is no cookie-cutter approach to reliably investigate everyone applying for a security clearance, and the effort to automate the process results in errors when people don’t fit the standard mold.

The problem with datasets and checklists is that when you’re obsessed with obtaining the specified information to the determent of using common sense, you’re highly susceptible to missing obvious information, like discrepancies on an applicant’s resume.

 Philip Becnel is the managing partner of the Dinolt Becnel & Wells Investigative Group in Washington, D.C. He is president of the Private Investigators Association of Virginia and author of Private Investigator Entry Level (02E): An Introduction to Conducting Private Investigations.