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Nelson calls for Senate probe into contractor security clearances


Published:   |   Updated: June 20, 2013 at 10:32 PM

In the wake of security concerns about two contractors hired by Booz Allen Hamilton, including one in Tampa, Sen. Bill Nelson is calling for an Intelligence Committee investigation into who gets high level security clearance.

On Thursday, the Senate Homeland Security Committee began reviewing how the government manages security clearances. The review was sparked by the case of Edward Snowden, the Booz Allen Hamilton contractor who leaked classified documents about an National Security Agency data mining program called PRISM to media organizations.

But Nelson, reacting to a question from the Tribune about another incident involving a Tampa-based Booz Allen Hamilton hire, wrote a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, calling for an investigation into contractors.

"Multiple incidents such as this warrant an Intelligence Committee investigation to determine more broadly how private contractors are managing the hiring and monitoring of employees who have top secret clearance from the government and who handle highly classified information."

He was referring to the case of Scott Bennett, now in a federal prison in Pennsylvania after being convicted two years ago of one count of making a false statement, one count of wearing his uniform without authorization and two counts of violating a security agreement by bringing concealed weapons on base and storing weapons and ammunition in his apartment at MacDill Air Force Base without permission.

The conviction stems from an incident at MacDill where Bennett, a defense contractor and Army Reserve 2nd Lieutenant, was found to be living on base under false pretenses and found to have several weapons and about 9,000 rounds of ammunition in his base apartment.

Nelson is questioning how Bennett was even able to gain a high level security clearance to work in one of MacDill's most secure facilities.

In 2008, Bennett was hired by Booz Allen Hamilton, which requested his security clearance, according to the Army. He eventually went to work at MacDill as a counter-threat finance analyst in the Joint Intelligence Operations Center. As a Booz Allen Hamilton employee, Bennett had one of the highest level of security clearances available - Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmentalized Information.

However, just months before he received his clearance, Bennett was convicted on a misdemeanor charge of lying to government officials and sentenced to three years of probation. Bennett had tried to bring a woman from South Africa he met over the internet into the country and lied about a job he created for her, according to court records. Experts contacted by the Tribune at the time of Bennett's conviction on the charges at MacDill questioned how he was able to gain security clearance despite many red flags that should have been raised by his 2008 conviction.

Thursday afternoon, Nelson expressed similar concerns in his letter to Feinstein, which included a July 22, 2011, Tribune story that raised questions about how Bennett received his clearance.

"Serious quality control questions have been raised here," said Nelson in an email from his press office. "These men and women have access to some of our most sensitive national security information. I agree with you that we may need legislation to limit or prevent certain contractors from handling highly classified and technical data."

Nelson said that there "should also be a committee investigation to determine how private contractors screen, hire and monitor employees who need top secret clearance from the government to handle highly classified information."

Snowden was fired by Booz Allen Hamilton after stories about the PRISM program appeared in the Guardian and the Washington Post, according to a company spokesman, who declined comment on Bennett.

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

@haltman

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