The trouble with security clearances

Although officials at the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management are completing security clearance applications faster, lawmakers criticized the efficiency of the screening process.

At a hearing of the House Intelligence Committee Feb. 27, lawmakers said many potentially good candidates may have their clearance applications rejected because of outdated policies.

"I know constituents [and] others who have been rejected ? I'm pretty convinced ? unfairly," said Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.).

OMB Deputy Director for Management Clay Johnson responded by saying that the more important issue is that the clearance process has resulted in no security breaches. "The primary issue is not that we are giving clearances to people who shouldn't have them," he said. "What we have here is a timeliness issue."

OPM, OMB and other agencies involved in the security clearance process have gained ground on the efficiency of security clearances. On Feb. 15, Johnson said in a phone interview that most agencies will be able to tackle their older backlogs by the next milestone date, December 2009.

But Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) expressed concerns about the application process. He cited a 2005 case in which an applicant was rejected on the basis of having contact with foreign government officials.

Issa also said agencies didn't share the results of background checks, saying that some agencies redid polygraph tests. "We still repolygraph people when they move [to other agencies] looking at the same data."

Agencies need a standardized clearance review process, Issa said. "Congress has been clear in terms of oneness of standards, oneness of process [and] the quality and acceptance of each other's clearances," he said. "We want someone who has a need to know something, to have been cleared to get it."

Johnson defended his efforts, saying that the reform of the security clearance process ? which includes moving to a paperless system ? is coming. "There's a transformation effort under way by the [Office of the Director of National Intelligence] and OPM [that are] looking at all the things we can do to transform the system," he said.

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