DHS resists security clearance improvements

Agency leaders object to IG suggestions on how to improve the security-clearance process

Homeland Security Department executives are resisting some recommendations from the agency's inspector general to consolidate their handling of security clearance applications. DHS Inspector General Richard Skinner issued the recommendations in a report published June 3.

About 70,000 of the 208,000 DHS employees have jobs that require security clearances to enable them to access classified information. But the process of investigating and awarding the clearances is complex and convoluted, Skinner wrote. DHS component agencies often are “delayed by applicants, overwhelmed by customer service requests, restricted by database functions and limited by information availability” in processing the applications, the report states.

The IG made 20 recommendations, including integrating databases and centralizing security intake processes. But in their written responses, DHS executives were cautious and accepted the recommendations only in part.

For example, Skinner's report notes that people selected for DHS jobs and even human resources executives often have difficulty accessing online security forms. But the various agencies have different approaches to customer service. The IG recommended that those responsibilities be delegated to DHS’ Personnel Security Division.

Jerry Williams, DHS’ chief security officer, backed delegating some of those responsibilities but rejected the idea of a central system. “Each component has unique characteristics and operating requirements that would make consolidation impracticable,” Williams wrote in a response to the draft report.

Furthermore, the IG’s recommendation that DHS create a centralized security intake process and customer service center would necessitate a “significant reallocation of resources and space” and requires further study, Williams said.

“This illustrates the difficulty of moving forward on these issues,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. “The component agencies don’t want this to be integrated into a single uniform system because they all value their autonomy.”

The problems date to the agency's creation in 2002, said Evan Lesser, director of ClearanceJobs.com. The separate agencies under DHS, such as Customs and Border Protection and the Coast Guard, had their own clearance processes before the merger and have not made much progress toward harmonizing their approaches since then.

Fixing the system might require a larger overhaul of the government’s approach to security, said consultant Bruce Schneier. “The problem is that in the end, this system of security clearances doesn’t catch the bad guys,” he said. “All the known spies have had security clearances. These little fixes don’t fix the problem.”

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Thu, Jan 14, 2010 Wayne Kulick Phoenix, AZ

Trust me, after 25 years of military service with much of it in the Intelligence Community and two years consulting o the Director of national Intelligence, if there's one thing I know it's that agencies are best at protecting themselves from one another. I held a TS/SCI with a CI Poly. I had for some number of years. Some agencies will not respect security clearances from other agencies though we all have the magic "IC Community" badge. This is shown in a recent example where I was applying to a Secret Service position. I was told I would be required to undergo a background security investigation. Before I could even say anything, the lady said "I know you have a current (active) Top Secret but the Secret Service always does their own. So what that says is, we (they) do not trust the validity of other agencies, even intelligence agencies, to properly adjudicate a background investigation. I'm looking at a possible consulting position with the DOE and I can bet you a month's pay if that happens I'll be told I have to undergo yet another background investigation since this is a "Q" clearance. There is a process of "passing clearances" from one agency to another when visiting. Even with the magic IC badge I've been told I would have to pass clearance to an FFRDC (Federally Funded Research and Development Center) which is a pseudo quasi not government but government entity because I was a contractor (albeit a 25 year retired military officer who's held a clearance for 27 years.) They can't fix a simple thing like the security clearance process and we're surprised when someone boards a plane with bomb materials?

Mon, Aug 17, 2009

Why haven't they talked to OPM, who currently conducts about 90% of federal background invetigations, and asked them to take the process?

Mon, Jul 27, 2009 Small busineess executive Washington DC Area

One of the earlier comments notes that an out of work contractor just can't sit and wait for DHS to churn through their internal processes. That's a valid point which also applies to small businesses who are paying salaries while DHS takes 4 months to as much as 8 months to adjudicate an employee who already holds the appropriate clearance for many years. However, also think of it in reverse. There are hundreds of DHS positions vacant all the time, simply waiting to be filled by qualified candidates who already have the appropriate clearances. The refusal of the DHS security office to implement any sort of triage processes and inject any efficiency into the system is crippling DHS's ability accomplish their mission and jeopardizing our national security.

Sat, Jul 25, 2009 Mark Schober Columbia, Md

This lack of standard process is not only extremely cost ineffective, it tends to keep the best and the brightest out of the government and creates a pool of eligible persons that is becoming stagnant with outdated skills. Secondly, it creates an inherent risk to the government and in general, specific agencies by not following best practices of standardization and process improvement. Would we advocate such a disparate process for acquisitions, engineering or any other important discipline? I think not....

Mon, Jun 22, 2009 Webster

I applied two or three times for contracting jobs where the customer was DHS. They needed three or four months *after* fingerprinting just to consider whether to accept my clearance from DoD. When a man is unemployed, he doesn't have that kind of time to sit on his thumb waiting for an agency to turn somersaults through its own procedures. And beyond that, whatever happened to reciprocity? Isn't a clearance supposed to be a clearance, now (post-IRTPA)? When those ... people at DHS get their act together, they might find they're getting better people -- people who don't think of themselves as soylent green.

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