For a person like Snowden to receive a security clearance at any level, the process would first go through the government’s Office of Personnel Management. There, background checks, interviews, and investigations are carried out. The depth of the background investigations depends on the level of clearance. Once the process is completed, the findings are sent back to the department from which the application came. In Snowden’s case, the Department of Defense would have been the final gatekeeper. There are no uniform standards for how agencies make this adjudication.

Some say there are systematic problems with the methods OPM uses to carry out its clearance investigations. “Agencies have questioned the quality of OPM’s investigations and our work has shown that the OPM investigations are incomplete,” Brenda Farrell, a director at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, told the Beast. “For example, in the 2009 report we noted that 87 percent of the investigative reports for about 3,500 top secret clearances—that were favorably adjudicated—were missing at least one type of documentation required by federal investigative standards and OPM’s internal guidance.”

Farrell said that OPM never addressed the concerns her department issued, and has yet to fix their process of collecting data. (OPM declined to comment.)