1996 07 06 NYT Private Eyes and Government Files – New York Times
Private Eyes and Government Files
Checking the background and reliability of Government workers seeking security clearances is a sensitive job that can easily be mishandled, as the White House abuse of F.B.I. files shows. But the way to keep the system clean and efficient is not to turn it over to private business. The potential for misuse of privileged information is too great.
But turn it over is just what the Clinton Administration is doing. Under a misguided reform proposed by Vice President Al Gore’s “reinventing Government” program, the Federal Government is getting ready to transfer 40 percent of its employee security checking to private hands.
The plan terminates the Government jobs of 700 workers in the Office of Federal Investigations, part of the Office of Personnel Management. On Monday morning, those same workers will be the employee-owners of the private United States Investigation Service, under contract to continue checking backgrounds for the Energy and Treasury Departments, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and other Federal agencies. The Administration boasts this is the first employee-owned company to be spun off from the Federal Government.
The F.B.I. now contracts out some security checks on its own employees, but the number is small, the bureau uses its own retired agents and it maintains tight control over the outside work. The economies promised under the Gore plan, presented as one of its main selling points, are not certain. The Government predicts a five-year saving of $20 million. While the plan does shrink the Federal payroll by 700 people and their benefit packages, the Government will still handle some of the work, creating the potential for duplication. The initial contract is a three-year, sole-source, non-competitive agreement with a work force that is experienced but untested in the private sector.
But the decisive issue here should not be saving money but preserving privacy and the security of sensitive information. Senator Paul Simon, Democrat of Illinois, and Representative Thomas Davis, Republican of Virginia, unsuccessfully tried to block the transfer of responsibility. They rightly questioned whether the new company would enjoy the confidence of state and local authorities and wondered how the private entity will be policed for compliance with Federal privacy laws. Mixing profits and privacy is a bad idea.
Congress, having approved the transfer, had better be vigilant to see that it works, and quick to reverse it if problems develop.