Republican lawmakers voiced support Friday for authorities to look more closely at things like the Facebook and Instagram accounts of applicants for government security clearances — a day after the Obama administration issued new guidelines for using publicly-available social-media information in federal background checks.
The guidelines signed Thursday by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper don’t formally require federal agencies to consider social media information in the checks, but do authorize its collection should an agency head determine it necessary.
Roughly a million background checks occur annually across more than 100 federal agencies. And debate over what should and shouldn’t be looked at during the process has been raging since 2013, when former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked thousands of top secret documents to journalists.
The Snowden case hung in the backdrop of a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Hearing Friday, where lawmakers argued over the extent to which privacy concerns should limit how aggressively authorities are allowed to comb through an applicant’s online footprint.
“Since 2008, various federal agencies have conducted studies on using social media data in investigations and they all find the same thing, that there is a wealth of important information on social media,” said Mark Meadows, North Carolina Republican.
Mr. Meadows, who chairs the Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s Subcommittee on Government Operations, said the issue “now facing the federal government is how to use social media information while respecting the legitimate privacy concerns that are often brought forth.”
While Mr. Meadows praised Mr. Clapper’s move to authorize the review of applicants’ social media profiles, the subcommittee’s top Democrat, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly of Virginia, voiced concerns about how far the government should be allowed to go.
He suggested federal investigators be required follow strict protocols, particularly when it comes to storing information found while examining an applicants online profile.
“While social media is a promising and valuable source, potentially, of information, I remain concerned that the government should not retain social media data of third parties who happen to engage with the applicant, but have not consented to waiving their privacy rights,” Mr. Connolly said.
“We must not forget to discuss other ways to enhance security clearance processes,” he added said, suggesting that federal investigators should do more to examine local criminal records in the clearance process.
He pointed to the 2013 case of Aaron Alexis, a federal subcontractor with a secret level clearance who went on a shooting spree that killed 12 people and injured four others at the Washington Navy Yard.
Investigators later found the federal background check that gave Mr. Alexis his clearance had failed to identify his history of gun violence.
“The local police record of Mr. Alex’s 2004 firearm arrest had not been provided,” Mr. Connolly said. “Improvements in communication between local law enforcement and federal background investigators could prevent and could perhaps have prevented a tragedy like that, which occurred at the Washington Navy Yard.”
New clearance center
The vast majority of federal background checks are presently conducted by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). But under an Obama administration plan announced in January, the task is soon to be absorbed by a newly created National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB).
Acting OPM Director Beth F. Colbert testified during Friday’s hearing that officials aim to have the NBIB organized, with a director in place, by October, although it will likely take months beyond that before the new bureau is fully operational.
The Pentagon, she said, will design, build, secure, and operate the NBIB’s investigative IT system in coordination with the new bureau, whose leadership will be headquartered in Washington, D.C.
Ms. Colbert also said a pilot program is in the works to “incorporate automatic searches” of publicly available social media into the background check process.
Snowden’s online chats
William Evanina, who heads the National Counterintelligence and Security Center in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, testified that there are key limitations to the new directive on social media examinations.
Mr. Evanina told lawmakers that, “by the term ‘publicly available social media information,’ we mean social media information that has been published or broadcast for public consumption, is available on request to the public, is accessible online to the public, is available to the public by subscription or purchase or is otherwise lawfully accessible to the public.”
It’s a distinction that seemed to irk some Republicans, who raised questions about the extent to which such limitations might dampen the prospects of identifying contractors and other clearance applicants with predisposed desires to leak classified information.
“Let me ask you this,” Mr. Meadows said. “In the years leading up to Edward Snowden’s theft of classified info, he made several posts to online forums using a consistent user name, complaining about government surveillance. And these posts may have alerted authorities that he could be an insider threat.”
“Have any of the social media pilot programs evaluated that they have been capable of detecting that sort of post, where the subject is posting under an online identity that is not explicitly the individual’s name?”
Mr. Evanina acknowledged that, in fact, the posts in question from Mr. Snowden “would not have been caught” under the current social media review standards because they were “not public-facing,” but “private chats with other individuals” in password protected areas of the Internet.
Rep. Ron DeSantis, Florida Republican, asked whether that meant investigators simply don’t ask applicants to provide information that could help identify social media postings the applicants may have made anonymously or with fake names.
“If John Smith applies for security clearance,” Mr. DeSantis asked, “you’ll look for John Smith, but if he goes by, you know, Jack — Jack Scott — then you’re just not going to require that? So, they could post whatever there, and that’s not going to be something that would be considered?”
“Not currently,” said Mr. Evanina. “[Not] unless they’re willing to consent to provide that information for us.”
“When you get past the public-facing interface of social media, you get to the — I think — the border of privacy and civil liberties,” Mr. Evanina said.
“We don’t look at their emails, and we don’t look at their telephone conversations as part of the background investigation as well,” he said.