Edward Snowden: A Private Contractor Gave Snowden His Security Clearance — and Missed the Red Flags

ByGabriel Grand

The flurry of finger-pointing this week as Congress attempted to determine how Edward Snowden was able to leak top-secret information about NSA surveillance practices has revealed several gaping holes in the government's security-clearance screening process.

Namely, Snowden's security-clearance investigation was outsourced to USIS, a private contractor that is the biggest supplier of federal background checks.


Patrick McFarland, the inspector general for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which handles most security clearance investigations for the Department of Defense, said before the Senate on Thursday that there are now concerns that USIS did not conduct a thorough or proper investigation into Snowden's background.

His office is now conducting its own criminal investigation of USIS for, in the words of Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), an alleged "systemic failure to conduct investigations."

The USIS investigation reveals the sorry state of the government's screening process as a whole. Reuters reports that the Office of Personnel Management outsources three out of every four security-clearance background checks to private contractors. According to the findings of a Senate subcommittee meeting on homeland security on Thursday, 87% of those background checks are never fully completed.

Since 2007, 18 investigators working for or contracted by the Office of Personnel Management have been convicted of falsifying the results of their investigations. Forty others are currently under investigation for the same charge. When pressed before the Senate about the number of investigators who are currently falsifying investigations, McFarland stated, "I believe there may be considerably more. I don't believe we've caught it all by any stretch."

Warning Signs

The holes in the government's security-clearance screening process may help to explain why investigators missed the numerous warning signs that Edward Snowden could be responsible for such a massive leak of classified information.

Within 24 hours after Snowden came forward, the media uncovered details of Snowden's anti-surveillance and anti-corporate online identity, which he had been cultivating since 2001. During the eight years that Snowden worked for CIA and NSA contractors, he posted hundreds of messages on the online forum Ars Technica under the pseudonym "The True HOOHA".

In one of these posts, he stated, "I can't hope to change the way things are going by overtly complaining, writing letters, or blowing things up... I will, however, do what I can with the tools that are available to me."

A photograph that surfaced online shortly after the news broke shows Snowden sitting with his laptop. On the laptop's lid are stickers for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Tor Project, both of which are organizations that advocate for digital rights and online privacy. 

Image courtesy of Twitter

All of these fragments from Edward Snowden's digital paper trail could have resulted in the denial of Snowden's security clearance had they been discovered by investigators.


Approximately five million Americans like Edward Snowden have access to classified government materials. The fact that any one of them could be responsible for the next major leak of secret government information is certainly a cause for concern.

At the subcommittee meeting on Thursday, Senator McCaskill said, "It is a reminder that background investigations can have real consequences for our national security."