What it was like to be interviewed for someone else’s background check

I was interviewed — “interrogated,” I called it, for someone else’s clearance. After she interrogated me, I interrogated her. Well, okay, I asked her about her work as an invesigator. Afterwards, I spent the rest of the afternoon writing about the experience. The date on the Word file is August 29, 2004– nearly exactly three years ago.

The “interrogation”

I referred to it beforehand as “being interrogated.” As in I’m going to be interrogated this afternoon. It wasn’t interrogation, really. But my boyfriend has a dot.gov email address, and some form of clearance that’s in need of renewal. So, last week when I’m outta town, he casually mentions during a phone call that he’s being investigated for the renewal of some kinda clearance, and I’m going to be interviewed.

I am? Why?”

“Because you know me. My neighbors are being interviewed, coworkers…” I vaguely recall him mentioning the investigation a previous time.

When she calls, I have a big knife in my hand, a Victorinox chef’s knife. This is so spook-ish, I think. But it was a coincidence. I was prepping fish.

She calls; she’s running early; can she come by earlier? Yes. Then she comes to the door. We shake hands, she comes inside. I invite her to sit on couch.

She shows me her badge. The top is a declaration that Name is a Special Investigator. Bottom section: Picture of her. Tucked into the ID folder is a dollar bill of some denomination. Emergency spending money? Or bribe money? Prolly the former, but hey, this whole thing is cloak and dagger. There may be other protocols that I’m not familiar with. I look at the badge closely, saying, “I’m the sort that reads the fine print.”

“Good for you. I don’t run across that too often.”

She gets out a pad, and begins asking me questions. No. She first tells me that this is confidential, and that Doc M can see the report at the end. I can request confidentiality if I want (later she says that they’d strip out any identifying information if I had requested confidentiality).

Here are the questions she asks. No, I’m not going to tell you how I answered.

How did we meet? And When?
What is our relationship and how often am I in contact with him?
What is his education?
What is my understanding of his job? What he does?
Would I describe his character? True blue, good to the bone, honest, etc.
Where does he live? Does he own his place? Does he have roommates?
Has he been married before? Does he have children?
Is he financially responsible? Able and willing to pay his debts?
No unexplained sudden influxes of cash?
Does he drink excessively?
Take illegal drugs?
Any health problems that impair his mental functions?
Has he sought counseling for psychological problems?
Were psychotropic drugs involved?
Has he been involved in any court cases? Lawsuits? Suing someone?

Does he have relationships with foreign nationals? Social life? Socialize with foreign nationals? Anyone with whom he’s got a close enough relationship as to imply an obligation to that foreign national? Has he traveled outside the country? Could I give her the names of couples we socialize with?

Does he have a relationship with anyone in the media, publishing, news TV, radio? (Okay, I’ll tell you how I answered this question.)
Uh, me. I write books (non fiction computer technical how to). And keep a blog. What’s a weblog? “Well,” I begin. And explain it. And ask, “can I blog this?” (Answer: you’re the one who’s talking, not me).

Has he ever shown indiscretion in describing his work?

Some other questions about his character: Has he ever shown signs of imbalance?
Is there anything in his life that would be cause for someone to blackmail him about?
Any indication he is disloyal to the country? (I don’t recall exact words; she asked that slightly differently)

Final question: Would I recommend him in a position of national security?
(I’ll admit it. I blurted a laugh. National Security is so all-encompassing. It’s a great big secret black box) I prevaricated. I mean, for what he does, sure, fine. NASA, no problem. But I might feel differently about it if he were being asked, say, to work for Condi Rice.

She thanked me, slipped her pad back into her little zipped portfolio.

Now it’s my turn to ask questions

Then I asked her questions. How long have you been doing this? How’d you get into this?
Went to college in 40s, same time as her daughter. Got a masters, to go into teaching. Found that teaching doesn’t pay. Well, not as much as one would think. A friend who got bachelors at same time she got her masters (I think) told her about this company. So she joined it.

It was an ESOP company. It came about that background investigations were done by the govt, and then outsourced. So those that had been doing them either had to find new employment or otherwise jump ship. Some people who’d been doing this decided to form their own company; after all, they’d been doing it for years; they knew what to do, and they thought they could win the contract.

So they did. She began working with them, and the company granted her stock, x number of shares in accordance with what her salary was. “I didn’t buy it, they gave it to me.”

Then, a couple of years ago, the company was sold to the Carlyle Group. Which she didn’t know too much about, but allowed as the background was a little scary.

Other places she investigates: Northrop Grumman across the freeway from Costco in Azusa. And Caltech. And JPL. Another small aerospace concern in Pasadena.

People work independently from home, do investigations from their own area.

On the buyout: when she got stock, it was worth $9/share, and first Carlyle bought out 25% (of which they were paid a portion) and final buyout at $36/share, so she got herself a nice little nest egg. (so a good deal for someone who’d married, divorced, got an education late and then joined the workforce.) But she wrinkles her face and makes uncertain noises about Carlyle. (I shared a bit of my knowledge of it — I learned it on the internet!).

I asked her if there were stories she could tell. Without naming names, that is. Oh yes, she said. Lots with the border patrol. One thing about this one kid, young, really nice. And he was applying for the border patrol! she said, as if that conveyed all. Made unspecific eyes widened omigosh it’s so bad there noises that I, alas, didn’t ask for specific elaborations on. She said, If things don’t work out with them, apply to our company. (hrm. I wonder if the security companies have a non-compete, no-recruit policy with the people they interview.)

And she did a bout of investigation at Los Alamos, it was during the time of the Ho Lee investigations. She interviewed his secretary, who said that he got a real raw deal, he was totally trustworthy and would never knowingly or deliberately do what he was accused of.

Also on Los Alamos, run by the DOE. The DOD and DOE are so behind on their investigations. DOD swamped with backlog–maybe 10 years worth. There aren’t enough investigators. With everything that’s going on, it’s a growing field. And not necessarily getting people new clearances, there is a backlog of old clearances, too. Take that Los Alamos place, for instance. Anyone who has a clearance has to get it renewed every 5 years. So consider how many people work there, and how everyone has to have a clearance, including the janitor. That’s why she was sent for a 9-day tour of investigation, a 60-hour week, as part of a kind of mass investigation spree that’s always needed at Los Alamos.

There are several agencies that do this kind of work, and she tossed out a bunch of TLAs (three letter acronyms). Which I did not write down. So sue me.

On the business of investigation. There are two tracks: the one for the Air Force (which this was), and the other for OPM (office of personnel management), which is general defense stuff (border patrol, INS which is, she believed, part of the DOJ. Said with another big expressive omigawd now that’s a can of worms if ever I knew one kind of expression. Also unelaborated. So I suck at the follow up questions and I took only very sketchy notes.).

She much prefers the AF one, for a couple of reasons: the people being investigated are, on the whole, higher caliber, live in better areas, so she doesn’t have to go into dubious neighborhoods to do cold calls on neighbors of those being investigated (yes, it’s true, they do interview the neighbors of “the subject.”).

Reason two: the AF’s regulations and procedures are good. They make sense. As in, the AF doesn’t make you do silly arbitrary requirements. Which, apparently the OPM does. Example: After submitting reports a certain way for years, the next report submitted is bounced back with some “do it different” requirement. Explanations of “But I’ve been doing it this way for years” are coldly responded to with, “Well, you’ve been doing it wrong. Do it this way.” The fact that there’s no clear standard on the OPM doesn’t help matters any.

I picture this arbitrary hell experience. She says that she hopes the AF contract is renewed, else she’ll leave.

Somewhere in the midst of the conversation was one of those deliberate, “well, anyway, there are some different opinions about what’s going on where I work” a statement that was oh-so-diplomatic. I am too polite, I did not press.

But we did speak of security clearances in a general way. I told her about globalguerrillas.typepad.com John Robb did bring up the matter of how the defense contractors were holding a job fair and the only people who could get in were those with security clearances. Proof that they were breathing their own exhaust. Also I generally extolled the site for its high on original content analysis and low-to-nonexistent on the political partisan crap. Yes, she said, she’d be interested in reading it and telling her co-workers about it.

So, what else did we talk about? Oh, the infighting between agencies (is this part of that failure of imagination that’s been going around)?

Case in point: Suppose someone working for the DoD gets a secret clearance. Then they move to the DoE, where they’re required to have a secret clearance. But their old one won’t work.

She said, They tell us that the work that we are doing is worthwhile, and is for the good of the country. But sometimes I wonder.

. . . . .

In light of the JPL HSPD12 re-badging thing, I wonder if the intended course of action is AirForce related or OPM — Office of Personnel Management. My guess is that it’s the latter.

5 responses to “What it was like to be interviewed for someone else’s background check”

  1. debbie

    It’s interesting how human and reasonable your investigator seems to have been, and how dubious she was of the value or rightness of what she was being paid to do. Your analysis of the costs is also an important point.

    JPL’s struggles are with the Department of Commerce’s Office of Security, OPM, and of course, with NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. The New York Times (nytimes.com) had a decent article about the employees’ lawsuit that was just announced (find it in the Science section, but it was on the front page for a day or so), and The Nation (thenation.com) posted an article by David Lindorff on August 30th, with less detail about the insidious “rebadging” requirements and more speculation on what Griffin and DoC are attempting to achieve at JPL in reality, since their actions make any claim of heightened security laughable.
    I wrote the one web letter response to that article so far (as of 9-1-07). If you read the DoC and NASA background docs carefully (it’s not easy to parse), you just end up foaming at the mouth, especially if you have a family member at stake.

    Lindorff and one or two of the leading plaintiffs think it’s likely that the whole excessive interrogation scheme is to find ways of suppressing bad news about global warming. Maybe–but probably not the main aim.

    From what I’ve heard in talking to a couple of JPL managers about NASA’s negotiations with Elachi and Caltech, which rolled over very quickly for an institute that had just re-won oversight of the national lab last year, I believe the main aim is to cut jobs at JPL, specifically those for scientific exploration of space without a military component. The question is how far those jobs are likely to be cut. And further, what would the money be redirected toward? And where? I have heard, and it makes some sense from JPL’s and Caltech’s increasingly vicious, restrictive, and threatening tone in presenting the process to employees over the past half year, that Griffin threatened to shut down a sizeable portion of, if not the entire, laboratory if JPL and Caltech didn’t implement the full-on ridiculous, expensive scheme in violation of employee rights.

    What disturbs me is how thoroughly the story hasn’t been covered–to date, the L.A. Times has a story, but despite its importance to Southern California, the story is buried in the National/Science section off the front page. There have been no reactions sought from Governor Schwarzenegger’s office on the likelihood of harm to California’s space industry (though granted, he doesn’t list an email address and the web form for contact is defective). And several days after the lawsuit was announced, the Washington Post, which serves the Beltway (and is partnered with the LA Times at least online), has still published exactly…nothing about the controversy.

  2. Susan A. Kitchens

    Debbie– re: my investigator… I’m sure that I was an atypical interviewee. Besides reading fine print, I turned tables and asked her about herself. I’ve no idea how much or often she’s introspective about her role and all that. And, to be perfectly fair, I typed up all these notes later that day, and had a half-sentence written after the “sometimes I wonder” part. Not remembering how it went, and recognizing a strong conclusion, I left it at that.

    I’m aware of both the Nation and NYtimes articles. re: your response, will find, read and link. I think I linked the Nation –I see now it was the Yahoo version, will change that– and have good intentions (!!) to link the NY Times one. The concluding quote about the cold war is, well, apt.

    Interesting points about the veiled threat of shutdown. If so, that’s a major sigh-er right there.

    News coverage — or lack thereof — is an interesting point. I cross posted my voluntary/not coerced/jobless over at DailyKos. The responses were interesting. They range from “this is typical for govt” and therefore, it’s not news but snooze to OMGWTF they’re suppressing global warming, those bastards! Re: driving coverage… hmm…. gives me some ideas.

  3. Brian

    I find it very interesting that the interviews are carried out by private companies such as Caryle Group. I had assumed that this was a function of the goverment and that all the information was kept in US goverment files.

    The Caryle group is very cozy with many political figures. Former president is an advisor to Caryle Group, as per Wikipedia ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carlyle_Group ).

    Makes me think that the huge expansion required by HSPD12 is a way of feathering the nest of some of the political contributors.

    President Eisenhower warned us of this possibility in 1961( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8y06NSBBRtY ).

  4. jim

    I dont think I would have told them sh*t…It all reeks of Nazism to me when Jpl told me I had to go through with this or be voluntary terminated I thoughtfully told them to shove there job right up there a*s….sideways

    If you enable these putrid f*c*s by even talking to them …I feel sorry for you..

    [profanity edited by site owner]

  5. Susan A. Kitchens

    “I find it very interesting that the interviews are carried out by private companies such as Caryle Group.”

    Brian, me too. Tho her paycheck wasn’t written by The Carlyle Group, but some name of some company that had been bought by The Carlyle Group. It certainly raised MY eyebrows when she mentioned it…. I’d read some discussion about Carlyle Group, Bush and binLaden family involvement with same, and they’ve been on my radar as dubious entity.

    I wish that I could react with a “surely not!” response to your nest-feathering. Instead, I sigh and say, Yep, prolly so. The $6 million bill for this badge thang, combined with the downsizing or abandonment of some of the science experiements of MSL Mars Science Laboratory (to save costs) is just one more galling thing.

    Jim, I’m having difficulty believing you. Not the anger part, nor the unfairness of the way that HSPD12 forces one to choose to stay employed or to stand on principle and resign– those are perfectly understandable. But the way that you say it, well, ‘taint characteristic of the JPL employees I know. Granted, the lab employs some 5000 people, not all of whom are technical staff. Oh, and the interview I describe happened long before HSPD12 came about, but had you read (more carefully) what I wrote, you would have realized that. Oh, and the fact that your IP address is from Calgary, Alberta caps it.