Union Sounds Alarm Over Background Checks for New ID

By Stephen Barr
Washington Post                                Tuesday, June 12, 2007; D04

Some federal employees are smarting over their smart-card treatment.

Background investigations of federal and contract workers being conducted for a new government-wide identification card, which carries a computer chip, have drawn objections at two agencies and rumblings of concern at others.

The National Federation of Federal Employees has raised questions about the background checks on behalf of its unionized members at the General Services Administration. Four research scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California have written to members of Congress and contacted NASA officials to make clear their opposition to the background checks.

The Bush administration's goal is to replace the multiple ID cards used in the government with a single "smart" card that will verify a person's identity and give him or her access to federal buildings and permission to log on to government computer networks. The cards are being issued in phases, with agencies facing a deadline of late 2008.

Before cards are issued, federal employees and contractors must provide fingerprints and disclose financial, medical and other personal data. The forms filled out by employees and contractors are matched against databases to verify the information. For some employees holding sensitive jobs, agents are sent to interview neighbors.

Some employees are nervous that they could lose their jobs if their agencies take a dim view of excessive credit card debt, unpaid parking tickets or restraining orders issued in divorce proceedings. Some employees also are concerned about the potential for identity theft if their personal information is stolen or lost from a database.

Charles Paidock, a vice president for the National Federation of Federal Employees in Chicago, said he has been asking: "Are innocent careers going to be damaged as a result of this?"

Federal officials said that the background checks are not new and that most federal employees undergo them when first hired and should have follow-up checks every few years. But, in a change, all contractors -- not just those involved in national security or who handle classified information -- must undergo the background check if they work in federal buildings or have access to federal computers.

Kathy Dillaman, who oversees investigative services at the Office of Personnel Management, said the information being collected is to determine whether a person meets certain character and conduct standards necessary for carrying out a government job and, where appropriate, for use in granting security clearances.

If the background check turns up information that may result in a firing or period of debarment from federal employment, the employee will have an opportunity to review the information and offer an explanation, she said.

Information collected about contract employees also is used by agencies to make so-called suitability determinations or to grant clearances. The information is not shared with the person's company for employment purposes, Dillaman said.

President Bush issued a directive in 2004 requiring a new ID card to help deter terrorists, criminals and computer hackers.

The cards, which resemble credit cards, are embedded with a computer chip that permits an exchange of data with another system.

In addition to building access, smart cards can be used to supplement passwords for logging on to computers, with users inserting the card into readers on their desktops.

Paidock said the union wants to make sure the smart-card program is administered fairly and without prejudice. "The issues are how far do they go, how aggressively do they do it," he said of the background checks.

The NASA scientists have written Reps. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.) and Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.) to express concern that the implementation of Bush's order "has created severe threats to the privacy rights of scientists and others, whether or not they are federal employees." A spokesman for Holt said the concerns raised by the scientists are being studied.

Agency spokesmen said they are doing as much as they can to be open about their procedures for implementing the smart-card requirements. "It is a change," said Bob Jacobs, a NASA spokesman. "The government changed after 9/11 and has implemented different levels of security."

Stephen Barr's e-mail address isbarrs@washpost.com.

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