Varied and uneven security clearance processes for contractors across DHS components are leading to confusion and problems for vendors, industry experts told a congressional panel.
Vendors are losing money while waiting for clearances from the Department of Homeland Security, representatives of contracting firms told a panel of lawmakers at a Feb. 27 hearing.
The problems are many: differing security standards across components, opaque internal processes and slow communications to contractors.
Brandon LaBonte, president and CEO of small tech business ArdentMC, said his employees wait on average 213 days for a DHS fitness determination even though the company has worked with DHS and its components for a decade. One DHS component his company was working for had approved an ArdentMC employee in June but didn't tell the company until February, he said.
The Oversight and Management Subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee also heard from representatives from the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, the Professional Services Council and Homeland Security & Defense Business Council.
The general feelings was that DHS should require reciprocity across agencies, make better use of data, improve data management and impose stricter cross-cutting standards for components.
Agency "fitness determinations" for contract employees are a sticking point, because each component believes it is doing it the right way according to its needs, said Charles Allen, senior intelligence advisor at the Intelligence and National Security Alliance. Allen, who served in senior intelligence roles at DHS and the CIA, said contractor employees who already have security clearances from intelligence and defense agencies should be able to pass DHS security checks with no problem, yet DHS agencies subject them to their individual vetting processes.
The culture of separation and long delays for contractors to get a component fitness determination can also apply to DHS employees looking to shift jobs between components, said David Berteau, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council.
Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) wondered if DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen had the authority to change the processes across components.
"There is no statutory or regulatory impediments" to the DHS secretary doing so, said Berteau. However, he said, if a DHS component has to hand off some of its background-checking work to the Office of Personnel Management for deeper investigation, things would get more complicated.
Berteau suggested that components could be compelled by DHS to provide data on the number of fitness determinations they have received, how many they have approved or completed and the number they haven't processed. Concrete data would give the secretary ammunition to bring management incentives to bear on those that have problems.
Over the last 10 years, LaBonte said, things have gotten progressively worse at DHS with security clearances. "That means the agency's management can make things better."
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