washingtonpost.com
Background checks zero in on the undisclosed

By Dana Hedgpeth
Monday, October 11, 2010; A15

Each year, the U.S. government issues thousands of security clearances to employees. But it is not Uncle Sam who does all of those background checks. Many are done by a private contractor.

Falls Church-based USIS, which was mentioned in The Post's Top Secret America series, is one of the largest outfits doing screening and background checks for the government. Its clients include the departments of Justice, State, Homeland Security and Defense, plus about a dozen intelligence agencies, including the National Security Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office.

USIS, which is privately held, has had contracts with the government to do background investigations since the mid-'90s. The company won't say how much it makes from government contracts, but executives said last year it processed more than 2 million investigations for the government. The U.S. government then uses the USIS information to decide whether to grant someone a clearance.

Doug Steele, vice president of operations in the Investigative Services Division of USIS, discussed the business. Here are some interview excerpts.

Q: What's the worst thing someone can say when going through a background investigation?

A: To me, the worst thing someone can say is what he doesn't say.

What do you mean by that?

When there's not full disclosure, that's what can get you in trouble.

Why?

Because it goes to a person's honesty, integrity, personal conduct and candor. If someone is not truthful in the course of a background investigation with us, then it raises the question, "How can he be trusted in a position of responsibility dealing with national security on a day-to-day basis?"

What kinds of questions do you ask a person?

For higher-level clearances, we ask such questions as 'Is your spouse affiliated with anyone that others may question?'

What's that mean? It sounds like you're asking if my spouse is friends with Tony Soprano.

Some people joke and say, "You should see my husband's friends."

What else do you ask?

We might ask about the person's travel patterns.

Why?

Well, let's say a neighbor mentions that Mr. Smith has a love of the mujaheddin in Afghanistan or al-Qaeda, that would trigger me to probe deeper. Or if you ask, "Have you ever known this person to show unusual foreign preferences?"

What does that mean?

If someone mentions they favor the politics of North Korea or Iran or Pakistan. That's going to raise an eyebrow to an investigator from a national security standpoint.

Do you really need to confess to all the crazy things you may have done in, say, your college days?

If the question is asked, absolutely. The worst thing to do is to tell a baldfaced lie. But for most people we don't go back that far in their history. It's usually activities you've been involved with in the last seven to 10 years for higher clearance levels.

How much does it cost for you to do one of your background checks?

We'll get back to you. [A few days later, a company spokeswoman said the costs can range from less than $100 to $3,344.19 per person for more extensive background checks.]

What's the worst thing you've heard someone confess?

We had an attache in a high-level position assigned to an Eastern European country who very much liked the ladies. He had two separate lives. When I interviewed his wife, everything he had told me didn't square.

What do you mean?

He was a jet-setter, but at home he was a librarian type. I happened to ask him about his wife's friends, and it turned out that he was having an affair with his wife's best friend and a second woman in the Eastern European country. When he would fly abroad he would take her and rendezvous with the other women as well. Yet he was representing the highest levels of the U.S. government.

How did you even think to ask about his wife's friends?

It was by reading his body language that I detected something wasn't adding up. During an interview you ask about home life, marital status - not because you want to know if they like fishing but because you want to know how quick they are on their feet.

How could you tell he was lying?

He had shifty eyes. He put his hands up to his face, crossed his hands a lot. That triggered that there was more to the story.

What happened with that gentleman?

He ended up losing his clearance and was debarred from further federal service.

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