Back to square one on clearances
- By Florence Olsen
- Jun 13, 2008
Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) didn’t mask his disappointment. He said a failure to eliminate delays in issuing security clearances meant the Bush administration would be passing the problem to the next administration. That was not the outcome Voinovich expected when he promised four years ago to work with administration officials to fix the clearance process.
Security clearance reform remains a top national security challenge for which the government’s response has fallen short, Voinovich said at a recent Senate hearing. The government now accepts electronic applications in a process that is still mostly manual, but not all agencies are using the available automation.
“The Defense [Department] bears most of the burden for this failure,” said Voinovich, ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia Subcommittee.
In the first quarter of fiscal 2008, he said, DOD submitted only 77 percent of its clearance applications electronically to the Office of Personnel Management, which conducts clearance investigations for DOD. Voinovich cited an August 2007 DOD report, which states that in July 2007, as many as 5,805 top-secret security clearance investigations of federal contractors had been pending for more than 360 days.
An assessment of the government’s hiring and clearing policies and procedures requested by President Bush in February focused primarily on factors that cause delays and create backlogs in processing security clearances.
A Joint Security and Suitability Reform Team, which conducted the assessment, cited factors such as the absence of a uniform approach to hiring and clearing employees along with significant obstacles to implementing paperless clearance procedures. Members of the team also identified policy barriers to obtaining security clearances for first- and second-generation Americans as an area of special urgency.
The need for people with Middle Eastern language skills is only one aspect of the complex clearance challenges facing the federal government. Background checks for presidential appointees were not addressed in an initial report on a clearance reform proposal presented to the president April 30, but White House officials said that clearance process is also broken.
Also missing from the discussion of clearance reform is demonstrated evidence that automated risk assessment, as proposed in the initial report, can provide assurance that people who receive security clearances are trustworthy.
Determining trustworthiness will be a growing challenge as government adapts to an increasingly digital world, said Evan Lesser, director and founder of ClearanceJobs.com, a Web site that matches U.S. job seekers with active federal security clearances to companies that need employees with those credentials.
An experienced security clearance adjudicator looks at all the investigative information available, including the negatives, and makes a decision based on the whole person, Lesser said. If the government can get a computer to make logical decisions about the whole person, “then they’ve got a winner,” he said.
Some federal policies and procedures must change before the clearance reform team can complete its information technology strategy, said Beth McGrath, principal deputy undersecretary of Defense for business transformation and a member of the Joint Security and Suitability Reform Team.
Many of those policies and procedures date from the 1950s, when Dwight Eisenhower was president. “Although we’ve had a lot of discussion around [IT], if we don’t get the process and the policies right, it won’t matter what we build,” McGrath said.
The team’s initial report presents a blueprint for significant change in the security clearance process based on the use of modern investigative tools and IT, a risk management philosophy, and efficient, standardized business practices, said John Fitzpatrick, director of the Special Security Center at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and one of the authors of the clearance reform report.
Several policy and procedural changes recommended in the April 30 report are possible under existing authorities or will be authorized in an executive order the president will issue by June 30, said Clay Johnson, deputy director of management at the Office of Management and Budget.
The administration has already asked OPM to modify Standard Form 86 for requesting a security clearance. The modified form will enable the government to perform automated records checks for verifying applicants’ information.
In addition to automated records checks, the clearance reform report proposes creating all-electronic case files to track individual clearance applications through every phase of processing. It also calls for building automated decision-support capabilities that would free investigators from time spent on the majority of clearances, which are at the secret level, to work on complex investigations required for the top-secret level.
Implementing the initial reform proposal would require new methods of transferring clearance data from two databases, now accessible only on classified DOD and intelligence networks, to a centralized database on an unclassified network. “The intent is to study and overcome that problem,” Fitzpatrick said.
Other IT components of the initial proposal, such as creating an all-electronic case file system, will require additional effort on the part of agencies that maintain public records. “It’s certainly a [workflow] engineering effort,” said Kathy Dillaman, associate director of OPM’s Federal Investigative Services Division. “We’re collecting information from 15, 20 or 30 different data sources.”
The reform team is still doing research to determine the extent to which automated records checks, a major component of the initial reform proposal, are feasible. Automated records checks could improve the hiring and clearance process if the government asks the right questions, Lesser said.
“Is it going to be flagging the right people that need the extra investigation, or are we going to be missing certain people? There’s going to be a fine line between quality and quantity,” he said.
A technical appendix to the initial reform proposal will document the results of a clearance reform demonstration project, but that information won’t be generally available until July, Lesser said.
Meanwhile, companies that aggregate available electronic public records are looking for business opportunities that could come from the government’s clearance reform efforts.
“LexisNexis has a whole background-checking business that uses combinations of all of the information that we have available electronically as well as the type of things you have to verify off-line,” such as validating employment and college degrees, said Brendan Peter, senior director of industry affairs at LexisNexis Special Services, a business unit of LexisNexis.
Despite unknowns about the IT components of the hiring and clearance proposal presented to the president, the proposed reforms have gained momentum because of high-level support from DOD, ODNI, OMB and OPM, Fitzpatrick said.
Senior DOD and intelligence officials — Defense Secretary Robert Gates, ODNI Director Michael McDonnell and James Clapper, undersecretary of Defense for intelligence — endorse the reform proposal. “When those three people say it can be done, mountains start to move,” Fitzpatrick said.
Companies that would benefit from a faster hiring and clearance process are keeping their fingers crossed, said Trey Hodgkins, director of defense pr grams at the Information Technology Association of America, which represents IT companies.
“Honestly, I think our biggest problem will be momentum and keeping that momentum going forward into a new congress and a new administration,” he said. “We hope it will have someone like a Clay Johnson who can devote the time and energy that he has devoted to this.”
The clearance assessment team proposed removing barriers to obtaining security clearances for first- and second-generation Americans. Although the reform proposal doesn’t specifically mention U.S. citizens of Middle Eastern descent who have language skills the government needs, Fitzpatrick said the proposed policy and process changes would greatly assist the intelligence community.
The team that prepared the assessment of federal hiring and clearing standards didn’t focus on background checks for presidential appointments, but that is another area that requires attention, Johnson said.
“The White House and the Senate have to agree on what constitutes a background check for presidential appointments,” he said.
Voinovich said he would work with White House officials on information standards for background checks on presidential appointees requiring Senate confirmation.
The clearance reform proposal will help, but determining trustworthiness has always been a difficult job, and it’s becoming more difficult, Dillaman said.
“What we’re talking about with security clearance reform affects 800,000 people a year…. Certainly we have taxed the record systems in the country because of the increased demand for background checks. Police departments are being asked to furnish records on a lot more people than they ever have in the past, and that causes delays sometimes,” she said.
“And there are new behaviors of concern,” Dillaman said. “If you look back 15 or 20 years, nobody was too concerned about some of the things that happen in the cyberworld, and yet right now cybercrime is very much a big issue [as is] deviant behavior in the cyberworld. We have to keep pace with what the issues are today.”