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Posted at 8:00 AM ET, 04/ 9/2010

CIA security investigator -- solitary, unglamorous work

By Jeff Stein

The sentencing of a fired CIA investigator Monday for fabricating security-clearance reports reveals how difficult the job is for young people who expect it to be exciting or glamorous, seasoned investigators say.

Kerry Gerdes, 27, of Royal Oak, Mich., was sentenced to two months in jail and ordered to pay back six months salary for the period she fabricated some or all of 80 background investigation reports on people seeking a CIA security clearance.

Gerdes joined the CIA out of college and was lonely in Washington without friends or family, said Richard Helfrick, the federal Defender Services lawyer who represented her.

“It was a combination of things," he said in a telephone interview. "There was a lot of pressure to get these interviews done," with “not enough hours in a day.”

"She was basically overwhelmed and took some shortcuts," he told the Associated Press before the court hearing this week.

Gerdes was a fulltime CIA employee. But private contractors supply large numbers of investigators to do security clearances for federal agencies, including the CIA, according to industry sources.

It can be very lonely work, says William Henderson, a longtime former federal investigator and author of “The Security Clearance Manual.”

Investigators usually work out of their homes, setting up appointments by telephone, driving hours to and from interviews with an applicant’s neighbors, friends, coworkers and previous employers, and then writing up reports -- alone.

“Young people have very high expectations,” Henderson said in an interview, but then “they learn it’s not very exciting stuff.”

It’s a job better suited to retirees, who don’t need to make a living from the work, he said. The pressure to meet quotas can be excruciating for others, and “there’s no opportunity to [vent] to other investigators” in an office.

“There’s pressure to meet production standards,” Henderson said, “but not overwhelming pressure” -- at least for most interviewers, he said.

Gerdes evidently cracked from the strain. Her father was also gravely ill in Michigan. Prosecutors transferred her case there from Alexandria, Va., so she could be close to him.

"I'm sorry, sir,” she told U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn at her sentencing, the AP reported. “This will never happen again."

“This is no job for a weak personality,” wrote a contributor to the SecurityClearances blog, after news of Gerdes’s arrest first broke last year.

"The pressure in my 4.5 years in this arena has grown two-fold with unrealistic metrics for full timers … I can honestly say, there is no way I will stay in this business as there are essentially no raises, nothing but constant pressure-filled days and no real reason to stay," added the blogger, who signed the post "BW An Investigator."

“The worse part is that nobody cares to listen to the day-to-day work horses in this process,” BW continued. “I am, as I have the ability to [handle] any pressure dealt, but I have watched many folks crumble along the way and these were good-hearted, security-minded, all around good people.”

The good news -- for job applicants -- is that the time to complete a security clearance has drastically shrunk in recent years.

“Specifically, in 2004, initial Top Secret clearance investigations took almost 400 days, and today they take less than 80 days,” Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) said during a Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs subcommittee hearing last September.

“Similarly,” Voinovich said, “initial Secret clearance investigations took about 200 days in 2004, and today they take less than 50 days. This is significant progress that I recognize and appreciate.”

Subcommittee chairman Daniel K. Akaka (D-Alaska) declared that, “the backlog of security clearance determinations has all but vanished.”

At the CIA, ”security processing time runs on average about three months,” a spokesman said. “That includes a polygraph, too.”

Henderson credited passage of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 for speeding up clearances.

"Once they had to report to Congress on their progress, things changed," he said.

Gerdes reports to prison in 60 days. Her attorney, Helfrick, said he hoped a reporter wouldn’t try to interview her, because “she feels bad enough as it is.”

By Jeff Stein  | April 9, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Intelligence  
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Submitting fabricated reports is not a new phenomenon among federal background investigators. Back in the 1960s and 1970s it was called “curbstoning;” today it is commonly called “ghostwriting.” There are no published numbers that show how often this type of conduct was discovered in the past. People working as background investigators only heard about such cases unofficially. OPM recently revealed that from 2005 to May 2009 they caught 53 background investigators who submitted falsified reports—all were fired; a few were prosecuted. During that time OPM had a total of about 6,000 to 7,000 federal and contract investigators. This does not include the investigators working for agencies such as the CIA, FBI, and others that have the authority to conduct their own investigations. The number of investigators OPM caught ghostwriting represents about two-tenths of one percent of their investigative workforce per year. Although this is a small percentage, my guess is that it may be 2 or 3 times greater than before 2001. Since 2001 pressures related to investigator productivity goals have increased, but not enough to account for the increase in ghostwriting. Other changes during the last 15 years that have created a less healthy work environment for federal background investigators are probably more to blame. The number of investigators has doubled and the turnover rate has increased dramatically. Many more investigators now work from home, have little or no interaction with coworkers, and less direct contact with supervisors. Supervisory span of control has been stretched from 1:10 to 1:25, so supervisors are less able to review reports, motivate subordinates, boost morale, and provide mentoring. Therefore they are less able to head off problems before they become irreversible.

William Henderson

Posted by: scmauthor | April 11, 2010 5:32 PM | Report abuse

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