DOD reviews systems access

As part of an ongoing effort to protect its systems, the Defense Department is considering a policy that could prohibit foreign nationals from working in sensitive information technology positions.

If the guidelines are adopted, some foreign nationals in the "most sensitive positions may not be permitted to remain in those positions," said Pete Nelson, DOD's deputy director for personnel security, March 7.

However, the draft policy is broader than that. It requires that "all persons, including contractors and foreign nationals, employed in specified IT sensitive-but- unclassified positions, be subject to an appropriate investigation, depending on their position," Nelson said. It is unclear how many people could be affected.

"It is in the interest of the department to ensure that any person accessing unclassified-but-sensitive DOD IT systems be reliable and trustworthy," Nelson said. The draft policy, which DOD would not release, could be approved in 60 to 90 days, he added.

Imposing a citizen-only provision for nonclassified IT work would have a "significant, but not wide-reaching, impact," said Ray Bjorklund, a vice president at market research firm Federal Sources Inc. He noted that the Justice Department imposed similar restrictions before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Most DOD contractors are U.S.-based companies that employ people from the defense community, Bjorklund said. "These are people and companies who have held or do hold clearances and, therefore, are likely to be made up of U.S. citizens," he said. He noted, however, that it is possible for a foreign national to hold a U.S. security clearance.

Vendors who do classified work, especially for intelligence organizations, in general already meet security requirements, said Anthony Valletta, former acting assistant secretary of Defense for command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I) and currently vice president and director of SRA International Inc.'s C3I systems division.

However, what shouldn't be overlooked, Valletta said, is that only a small number of U.S. students pursue science and technology careers, which means that there are fewer and fewer qualified U.S. candidates each year. If the situation doesn't change, he said, it will make it more difficult for the government to hire the required staff.

More analysis is needed, some say. "I think it is something that needs much more public discussion," said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, an industry group. All IT companies have foreign workers woven throughout their staff, he said, and adhering to such a policy could be a logistical nightmare.

And such a policy is no guarantee. Miller noted that U.S. citizens also have committed serious offenses, including Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and accused FBI spy Robert Hanssen.

The policy could also increase IT costs because workers with security credentials already demand premium pay, analysts say.

Paul Brubaker, chief executive officer of Aquilent and former DOD deputy chief information officer, said it would be better to create policies that would ensure the trustworthiness of staff working on sensitive issues. Those could include background checks and security clearances, he said.

But if the policy is taken too far, he said, it could prevent vendors that produce software overseas from selling to DOD. Many software vendors use overseas software developers to write code.

Meanwhile, the Navy has set out to determine its dependence on foreign national personnel in IT positions and to "better gauge any future cost of impact of the policy on them when it is implemented," Nelson said.

However, one Navy official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was unaware of any Navy risk assessment of the DOD draft policy. It "typically doesn't work that way," the official said. Such assessments are usually associated with security certification and accreditation efforts.

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What's the impact?

According to Pete Nelson, the Defense Department's deputy director for personnel security, DOD's draft policy applies to U.S. citizens and non-U.S. citizens working on sensitive-but-unclassified information technology systems anywhere in the world.

Some foreign nationals in the most sensitive positions may not be permitted to remain in those positions. DOD does not know the number of foreign nationals involved in the different types of sensitive jobs. Also, DOD does not have a baseline number for the military, civilian and contractor personnel working with unclassified-but- sensitive information, Nelson said.

The draft policy is based on more than three years of study and effort, has been extensively coordinated within DOD and has been provided to other executive branch agencies for their consideration or use.

About the Author

Christopher J. Dorobek is the co-anchor of Federal News Radio’s afternoon drive program, The Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris, and the founder, publisher and editor of the DorobekInsider.com, a leading blog for the Federal IT community.

Dorobek joined Federal News Radio in 2008 with 16 years of experience covering government issues with an emphasis on government information technology. Prior to joining Federal News Radio, Dorobek was editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week, the leading news magazine for government IT decision-makers and the flagship of the 1105 Government Information Group portfolio of publications. As editor-in-chief, Dorobek served as a member of the senior leadership team at 1105 Government Information Group, providing daily editorial direction and management for FCW magazine, FCW.com, Government Health IT and its other editorial products.

Dorobek joined FCW in 2001 as a senior reporter and assumed increasing responsibilities, becoming managing editor and executive editor before being named editor-in-chief in 2006. Prior to joining FCW, Dorobek was a technology reporter at PlanetGov.com, one of the first online community centers for current and former government employees. He also spent five years at Government Computer News, another leading industry publication, covering a variety of federal IT-related issues.

Dorobek is a frequent speaker on issues involving the government IT industry, and has appeared as a frequent contributor to NewsChannel 8’s Federal News Today program. He began his career as a reporter at the Foster’s Daily Democrat, a daily newspaper in Dover, N.H. He is a graduate of the University of Southern California. He lives in Washington, DC.


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