Background Investigations

Program Deficiencies May Lead DEA to Relinquish Its Authority to OPM Gao ID: GGD-99-173 September 7, 1999

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is responsible for ensuring that background investigations of federal job applicants, contractor employees, and others are adequately conducted. OPM has the option of allowing agencies to perform their own background investigations, as it did for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Recently, however, DEA has considered relinquishing background investigation authority to OPM, except for the authority to investigate the backgrounds of applicants for DEA special agent positions. This report describes the circumstances that led DEA to consider relinquishing its authority to conduct personnel background investigations. It also assesses whether OPM acted in an independent and objective manner in choosing to review DEA and its background investigations.

GAO noted that: (1) a series of evaluations in the 1990s critical of DEA's background investigations and personnel security program caused DEA to consider relinquishing its background investigation authority; (2) the findings of OPM's assessments over much of the 1990s, an assessment by the Department of Justice (DOJ) in 1998, and its own assessment in 1999 triggered DEA's consideration of this issue; (3) DEA's relinquishment of investigation authority would be consequential because DEA and its contractor performed an estimated 5,600 background investigations in 1998; (4) during the late 1990s, OPM reviewed a sample of 265 background investigation reports prepared by DEA and its contractors and determined that all but 1 investigation was deficient in meeting the investigative requirements that DEA had agreed to follow; (5) DOJ audited DEA's personnel security program in 1997 and found deficiencies similar to what OPM had found in 1992 and again in 1998; (6) based on the DOJ audit and the recurring finds of OPM, DOJ's Assistant Attorney General for Administration told the DEA Administrator in October 1998 that he believed that DEA should relinquish all of its background investigation authority to OPM; (7) in early 1999, DEA conducted its own examination of the personnel security program, focusing on background investigations, and concluded that DEA was not able to capably perform or oversee background investigations; (8) this lack of capability allowed security clearances to be granted, regardless of whether the related background investigations were adequate; (9) DEA had allowed contract investigators to perform background investigations, even though the investigators had not gone through required background investigations because DEA did not have funds to finance such investigations; (10) as of July 1999, subsequent to its examination of the personnel security program, DEA was considering relinquishing its authority for background investigations to OPM, except for the authority to investigate backgrounds of applicants for DEA Special Agent positions; (11) DEA believed that it would be unwise to separate the background investigation from the overall applicant selection process by having them conducted by an independent entity not familiar with DEA's unique requirements for Special Agents; and (12) OPM appeared to have been objective and independent in choosing to review DEA's personnel security program and background investigations.

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