Week Ahead: Congress tackles contractor clearances

Lawmakers have raised questions about the access that civilian contractors have to national secrets since the leak of classified National Security Agency (NSA) documents by Edward Snowden.

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"People are asking, why does a kid who couldn't make it through a community college make $200,000 grand a year and be exposed to some of our most significant secrets?" Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said of Snowden.

Last Thursday, members of the Senate Homeland Security Committee held the first of what promises to be a string of congressional hearings about civilian clearances. The House Armed Services emerging threats and intelligence committee will take their turn reviewing the issue on Friday. 

The emerging threats subpanel, headed by Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), has summoned officials from military and intelligence contracting firms Unisys Federal Systems, MITRE Corp. and New Century U.S.

Unisys Chief Technology Officer Mark Cohn will appear alongside Barry Costa, director of technology transfer for MITRE and New Century U.S. President Scott Jacobs during Friday's hearing.  

USIS, the firm responsible for conducting Snowden's background investigation and granting him top-secret clearance, is now the subject of a federal investigation. 

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) on Thursday said the Office of Personnel Management inspector general is spearheading an inquiry into USIS for a systematic failure to properly conduct its clearance investigations.

McCaskill said that the USIS was under investigation for a period of time that included Snowden’s background check in 2011. 

Michelle Schmitz, the assistant inspector general for investigations, confirmed during the Senate hearing that an investigation was underway. She said Snowden’s background check was conducted before the investigation into the contractor began in late 2011. 

In light of the USIS inquiry, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) is calling for congressional investigations into the entire clearance processes for civilian contractors. 

"These men and women have access to some of our most sensitive national security information," Nelson said in a letter to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on Thursday. 

"Multiple incidents such as this warrant an Intelligence Committee investigation to determine more broadly how private contractors are managing the hiring and monitoring of employees who have top-secret clearance from the government and who handle highly classified information," according to Nelson.

Feinstein told reporters she would push for legislation to limit the access that federal contractors have to highly classified information. 

"We will consider changes," Feinstein told reporters after a classified briefing with administration officials on the NSA leaks earlier this month. 

"We will certainly have legislation which will limit [or] prevent contractors from handling highly classified data," she said.

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