Plenty of news outlets are tracking hour by hour the efforts of Edward Snowden, the man who leaked highly confidential government documents obtained using top-secret security clearance, to find asylum from criminal charges in the U.S.

We do note, however, that there is an investigation into the firm that conducted the background check on Snowden, according to a report in the Wall Street Journalsnowden.jpg.

The report quotes Senator Claire McCaskill as saying there is an investigation into due-diligence firm USIS over allegations that it suffered from a “systematic failure to adequately conduct investigations.” It added that the Inspector General for the government’s Office of Personnel Management stated that “there is an alarmingly insufficient level of oversight of the federal investigative-services program,” and that “a lack of independent verification of the organization that conducts these important background investigations is a clear threat to national security.

Snowden makes for an interesting case study because of what an unusual person he was before these leaks came to be widely known. In a New York Times story published last weekend, headlined A Life of Ambition Despite the Drifting, the reporters came up with a picture of a high school dropout who bounced around various jobs including that of a security guard. He was also unable or unwilling to finish a community college degree once he had obtained a high school equivalency.

All of this was found in pretty short order by a bunch of reporters with access to telephones and on-line bulletin boards where Snowden wrote, in 2010, about is suspicion of government secrecy and “unquestioning obedience towards spooky types.”

None of this makes anyone a criminal, but it should raise alarm bells when it’s written by a person with top-secret security clearance.

The question that interests this blog is whether USIS picked up on any of the information in the New York Times story, and if so, what weight did they give it?

The Wall Street Journal story today reports that the government commissions 770,000 background checks a year for people requesting new or continued access to classified information. Maybe the worst thing in the entire article is this criticism of the way background checks are performed:

Current and former investigators have complained the process is antiquated and focuses more on making sure applicants properly fill out a 127-page application form than on thorough background checks.

We have written many times about the disservice “check the box” background checks do in Low Cost Background Checks Ruin Lives and The Key to a Good Interview is Silence, among others. The crucial point we need to make to clients over and over is that much of the best information about people is not written down in a public document where you can get at it. For a real background check, you have to call people – and people NOT on the reference list of the person you are investigating. Nobody lists as a reference someone who thinks ill of them.

As for that 127-page application: if you don’t verify the accuracy of the answers, it’s probably not worth the paper it’s written on.