Senator says size of problem tests officials' management skills
A backlog of more than 185,000 security clearance investigations is forcing prospective employees of the FBI, CIA and other agencies to wait for months while their cases are processed. Officials say the backlog shows few signs of shrinking, despite a law enacted last year to speed investigations.
The seemingly intractable workload has led Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) to question whether the law set unreasonable deadlines for fixing a problem he described earlier this month as a major national security and workforce challenge.
Voinovich, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee's Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia Subcommittee, said he also is concerned about a sharp increase in the number of security clearance applications since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many for higher levels of security clearance than in previous years.
Voinovich alluded to the attacks by noting that enormous sums of money are now being spent on clearances for jobs that previously required none. "Osama bin Laden has been responsible for enormous change in the United States of America," Voinovich said.
Many of the increased security investigation requests are for people in information technology positions. In this fiscal year, Office of Personnel Management officials anticipate conducting about 900,000 background investigations to determine the trustworthiness or suitability of individuals to have jobs as systems and network administrators or to hold similar positions of public trust.
Those and other factors will make eliminating the costly backlog a significant challenge for lawmakers and Bush administration officials, Voinovich said at a June 28 hearing on the backlog. But he said he intends to work with administration officials to fix the security clearance process. "I'm going to be on this like a junkyard dog," he said.
Voinovich vowed to get the security clearance program off the high-risk list, referring to its status as one of 25 federal programs that the Government Accountability Office has selected to receive extra scrutiny.
In February, the Defense Department transferred its security clearance investigative workforce to OPM, as required under the 2004 Defense authorization bill. About 80 percent of all investigation requests for security clearances come from DOD.
A major challenge to those charged with reducing the backlog will be establishing a reasonable estimate of the workload, said Derek Stewart, director of defense capabilities and management at GAO. But Stewart said DOD officials have so far been unable to give OPM estimates of how many people will need security clearances and at what level top secret, secret or confidential.
Stewart said DOD's estimates of how many security investigations the department would need were off by 150,000 in 2001, 135,000 in 2002 and 100,000 in 2003. "This is not a good picture," he said.
But a DOD official who testified at the subcommittee hearing said the count is becoming more predictable. "We're somewhat hopeful we've seen it stabilize," said Heather Anderson, acting director of the Defense Security Service.
So far, automation has not done much to reduce the backlog of security clearance cases. It could be several more months before an online clearance application process that OPM introduced last year can accept all DOD clearance applications, said Kathy Dillaman, deputy associate director for human resource products and services at OPM's Center for Federal Investigative Services.
Dillaman said that about 8,000 federal and contractor employees will be needed for the foreseeable future to process security clearance applications and other employment investigations. Currently, OPM employs four contractor employees for every one federal employee it hires to conduct background investigations.
OPM officials are coming up against new deadlines. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 set a deadline of Dec. 17, 2006, for fixing the backlog problems. By that date, 80 percent of investigations for security clearance applications must be completed within 90 days, according to the new law.
Voinovich and Stewart said they doubt that DOD and OPM can meet that deadline. "We have to be realistic about what it is we're asking people," Voinovich said, adding that lawmakers often put deadlines into legislation not knowing whether they are practical.
Stewart said a more realistic standard is 120 days for completing new investigations for secret and top-secret clearances. "Given the thousands of new staff that have been added, and the training that's required to get those folks up and ready to process investigations, the legislation's probably not realistic," he told Voinovich during the hearing.
Turning to Anderson and Dillaman, Voinovich said, "Maybe we need to change the law to give you more time."
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