Congress increases scrutiny of clearance process

Contractors will no longer help the Office of Personnel Management in the final stage of the federally controlled quality review process for granting security clearances, the top Office of Personnel Management official told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Feb. 11.

Only federal employees will conduct the second layer of quality reviews before the final product is sent to the agency for review and adjudication, Katherine Archuleta, OPM’s director, told the committee.

OPM earlier had said it would no longer allow its top contractor USIS to perform the final stage. USIS has been under fire for some of its work involving security clearances. USIS performed the investigations involving Edward Snowden and Aaron Alexis, the Navy Yard shooter.

“Having federal employees now perform this function responds to concerns, including the mere perception, that our review has been or ever will be anything less than rigorous. We believe this is the best immediate response,” Archuleta said. She issued the order last week.

OPM handles more than 95 percent of the security clearances—roughly 2 million investigations for more than 100 agencies. Archuleta said OPM is working with Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and others to improve their background check process. OPM is working to improve it through collaboration and better communication between OPM, ODNI, investigators, and adjudicators.

“OPM recognizes that, in a rapidly changing world, the background investigation program, and the security clearance process in particular, must keep up with the times while continuing to meet existing demands,” she said.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and his committee held a hearing to discuss the security clearance process in light of the Washington Navy Yard shooting Sept. 16. Alexis, an employee of a small subcontracting company, went on a shooting rampage and killed 12 people. However, Alexis had security clearances to enter the facility. Yet he also a history of violence and signs of mental illness.

The killing spree brought to the forefront the need to improve the security clearance process.

While OPM moves forward, Issa has plans legislative action too. To patch holes in the clearance system, he wants continuous evaluation of people with clearances. Currently, top secret clearance requires a reevaluation every five years, and, for secret clearances, it’s every decade.

A report, titled “Slipping Through the Cracks: How the D.C. Navy Yard Shooting Exposes Flaws in the Federal Security Clearance Process,” details the current shortcomings in the clearance process and proposes reforms to address them. The committee found little cooperation between 450 police departments and federal background investigators, a lack of continuous monitoring, and regulations that, in fact, prohibit the investigators from using the Internet and social media, like Twitter and Facebook, in backgrounds checks.

Issa’s legislation would require OPM to obtain relevant information about cleared employees on a real-time basis. Federal agencies, as well as state and local governments, and adjudicators would have to share information. Once gathered, OPM then would pass along any relevant information to the agency that granted the clearance.

Communication between adjudicators and investigators could fill in holes in background checks, according to Issa’s committee.

Beyond sharing, investigators would be able to use the Internet and social media in background investigations as well as reviewing mental health evaluations.

Issa has yet to introduce legislation, but the report is the groundwork for what likely will come soon.

As the reforms take shape, the Defense Department has made improvements. In 2011, the Government Accountability Office removed DOD’s clearance process from its High Risk List, a list of problem areas that need attention. GAO removed it because the department sped up the process and also added tools to improve quality assessments and adjudicative standards for incomplete investigations.

One industry group, however, said agencies should not exclude contractors from helping in the background checks for clearances. Contractors aided OPM in clearing the security clearance backlog over the past decade and also helped DOD get its clearance process off the High Risk List. Stan Soloway, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, said contractors should not be kept away nor vilified as reforms go into place.

“We urge that they focus on procedures and processes, not whether all security clearance functions should be performed in-house,” he said. “What is needed are reforms that focus on modernizing the security clearance process.”

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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