DOD tackles security clearance logjam

The Defense Department organization that grants security clearances for its employees and contractors is focusing on new technology and better-trained employees to help it control a heavier workload.

Since August, Defense Security Service officials have been sending to adjudication facilities an average of 2,500 security investigation and reinvestigation cases for final decisions each day, said Charles Cunningham Jr., director of DSS. This is done at the request of Congress.

Spurred on by a few high-profile spy cases involving other government agencies, like that of Aldrich Ames, DSS' workload has been steadily increasing since the late '90s. For instance, beginning in 1999, Congress asked DSS to check with local law enforcement agencies and investigate financial records before granting secret and confidential clearances.

The result is a backlog. At the end of April, DSS had 405,000 cases pending, Cunningham said. He wants to reduce the amount of time it takes to do re.investigations to 180 days. In some cases, such reinvestigations have taken more than 400 days to complete, he said.

Cunningham has been trying to do this by increasing training and quality management and investing in technology, but he has resisted calls for fundamental changes such as outsourcing. "You don't just work with the [information technology]," Cunningham said. "You work with the people."

In April and May, he sent employees to classes at DSS' training academy to make the service's operations more standard, as the General Accounting Office recommended in a report to Congress earlier this year.

Teaching case analysis standards and then evaluating how DSS' 155 case analysts are adhering to those standards is a main focus of the ongoing training, Cunningham said. "We have a standards evaluation manual for how things work to teach standards and techniques," he said. "We then test to see if the person is following these standards."

Cunningham also wants to improve the connectivity between DSS and its 130 field offices. "That's what we're living with," he said, pointing to a telephone line connected to his office notebook computer. DSS needs more than just 56 kilobits/sec connectivity to its field offices in order to exchange data, he said.

DSS officials recently increased their server capacity by two-and-a-half times, which has helped. With the added memory, "we're consistently below 50 percent capacity on the [Compaq Computer Corp.] GS 140," Cunningham said. "We won't hold our breath [as] we've been doing since October 1998," when DSS' system for tracking security investigations and periodic reinvestigations of armed services workers and contractors began failing because of limited system capacity.

Still, the system DSS uses to process the security clearance data, called the Case Control Management System (CCMS), is unreliable and requires employees to also maintain paper files, said Carol Schuster, the GAO director for Defense capabilities and management. This is because the system loses or overwrites data or just crashes, among other problems.

DSS said last year that it doesn't expect to eliminate the massive backlog in pending investigations until the end of 2001 because of the glitches.

Because of DSS' increased workload, Schuster is concerned that the "backlog is eventually going to find its way" to the adjudication facilities, where DOD services and agencies make final decisions on security investigations and reinvestigations after receiving case management data from DSS. "We're not quite sure what the impact will be at that level," she said.

DSS also may eventually need to replace the $100 million CCMS with a workflow system, Schuster said. Although Cunningham spoke of a system redesign, he stopped short of saying he would scrap CCMS.

Any improvements should happen soon. "I feel a tremendous urgency because of our mission," Cunningham said. "Our mission is security."

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