Edward Snowden is a hero to some and a villain to others. Whatever one thinks of the 30-year-old computer expert’s decision to reveal the existence of a clandestine federal program to monitor domestic communication, the ease with which he obtained and shared classified information is disconcerting and requires an examination.
About 4.5 million Americans have security clearance to access classified data, and a quarter of them work for private contractors, as Snowden did.
The Office of Personnel Management is supposed to check their backgrounds, but it lacks the resources to do them all itself. So the government hires private security firms to do most of them. The firm USIS conducted Snowden’s check.
At a recent U.S. Senate hearing co-chaired by Claire McCaskill, it was revealed that USIS is under a federal criminal investigation for what may be a “systemic failure” to properly conduct investigations. That raises serious questions about the efficacy and security of outsourcing secrecy.
McCaskill, who is chairwoman of the Senate Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight, is well positioned to represent the public interest. She can demand answers and push for change.
Oversight of top-secret work is inherently difficult because only a limited number of people have clearance to scrutinize it.
The job is doubly hard when the work is conducted by private contractors whose internal security and personnel policies fall outside direct federal scrutiny.
Reasonable people can disagree about how many secrets the government should keep, but some are necessary. Officials must take steps that ensure the most essential secrets remain that way.
Farming out the work only courts trouble.