The Obama administration has announced a new set of rules for government background checks — but still doesn’t require a review of applicants’ social media profiles, leaving the government well behind the private sector in vetting high-risk employees.
After a series of high-profile bungles, the administration on Friday announced that it was changing the name of the background check investigations agency and revamping the office to which it reports. Key among those changes is giving the Defense Department, which has the biggest need for security clearances and makes up the majority of background checks, a leading role in setting up and running the National Background Investigations Bureau.
But the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees background checks, said the bureau’s investigators still don’t have permission to delve through the social media accounts and profiles of applicants, forgoing a tool that all sides say is becoming more important in the 21st century.
Samuel Schumach, an OPM spokesman, said they agree on the need to look at social media, but they haven’t worked out how to do that while balancing privacy and accuracy.
“OPM is developing a social media pilot to complement other such pilots at DoD and other agencies so that searches of social media and other publicly available electronic information are responsibly integrated into the investigative process while respecting privacy and civil liberties,” the spokesman said.
It’s a problem that is plaguing the government across a number of fields.
The immigration service was late in adopting a policy to look at social media accounts of those applying for visas to enter the U.S. — an oversight that came into focus after it was revealed that one of the terrorists in last month’s San Bernardino attack had been active in radical online circles. It’s unclear whether officers could have spotted those messages if they had been allowed to peruse social media.
The administration, though, says it has learned a lesson and is quickly trying to expand social media checks at least in high-risk immigration areas such as the refugee populations from Iraq and Syria.
For those applying for secrecy clearance in the U.S., such checks are still forbidden.
The Washington Times reported in 2014 that such checks might have helped spot former government contractor Edward Snowden, who is in self-imposed exile in Russia after leaking details of some of the country’s most sensitive spy programs.
One analyst told The Times that about 10 percent of people have something in their social media profiles that would raise serious red flags in background checks.
The OPM, which conducts more than 1 million background checks each year, is revamping its policies in light of last year’s data breach, in which 21 million files, containing the most sensitive information imaginable on government employees, were stolen in a computer hack.
OPM will oversee the National Background Investigations Bureau. The bureau’s computer network will be designed, built, operated and secured by the Defense Department, which officials hoped would mean better protection of information.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican whose panel has been investigating the OPM hack, said the changes didn’t give him much comfort that things have changed on the ground.
“Simply creating a new government entity doesn’t solve the problem,” he said. “Today’s announcement seems aimed only at solving a perception problem rather than tackling the reforms needed to fix a broken security clearance process.”
Rep. Adam B. Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, saw some progress in the announcement. He said the OPM has never been set up to handle the kinds of national security concerns that are now involved in background checks.
“By entrusting the cybersecurity of this new bureau to the Pentagon, we will be better able to ensure that the personal information of those who work to secure all of us is protected,” said Mr. Schiff, California Democrat.
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