How Reliable are the Federal Government’s Background Checks?

Since Edward Snowden leaked national security secrets, it has brought up the question of how reliable are the background checks the government uses for its employees. Snowden managed to slip through the cracks it seems, even downloading top-secret files onto a thumb drive without being detected. The NSA contractor also passed through background checks administered to all employees with access to classified information without being flagged.

The company that that did Snowden’s background check, along with 45 percent of the government’s background checks, is under investigation. The background screening company, USIS, is under investigation and its mistake raises questions about just how thorough and effective the federal government’s background checks really are.

According to a former FBI agent, the background check process the government uses isn’t much different than anyone else’s. The applicant provides an extensive list of materials, including former employees, landlords, and references. The investigator will then contact all of the people and goes through a series of standard questions. It is possible for an investigator to drop the leads generated by their questioning. The former FBI agents said that many times the investigator is a retired officer who probably has an enormous backlog of background checks to perform and the pressure to move checks through the pipeline can be heavy.

So far, it is unsure if USIS did anything improper when performing Snowden’s background check in 2011. However, if they did cut corners or miss something, it wouldn’t be the first time. He expressed his hatred for leakers back in 2009, so his mindset changed since then. Snowden is still on the run and the government is trying to figure out how they did not know he would go off the rails.