OMB leads effort to speed security clearances

A Bush administration plan to speed security clearances for Defense Department employees and contractors includes impressive metrics but also some significant deficiencies, according to testimony presented on Capitol Hill this week.

Lawmakers and Bush administration officials have declared the backlog of DOD security clearance applications to be a national security problem. Under the authority of an executive order that the president issued this summer, a new Security Clearance Oversight Steering Committee developed a plan that administration officials say holds agencies accountable for eliminating most security clearance delays by December 2006. The committee is made up of officials from the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Personnel Management and other federal executive agencies.

The committee’s plan calls for enforcing the federal law known as reciprocity, under which agencies, with few exceptions, must honor existing security clearances and not initiate new investigative checks or reviews of existing background investigations, said Clay Johnson, deputy director for management at OMB.

“Reciprocity has been required before, but no one has ever held agencies accountable for honoring it. We will,” said Johnson, who testified before a Senate workforce subcommittee Nov. 9.

The administration’s plan, which focuses on using information technology to improve the security clearance process, sets a deadline of December 2005 for OPM to a create consolidated database of information on people with current security clearances and the types of clearances they have, Johnson said.

He also testified that committee members have pledged that their agencies will use OPM’s Electronic Questionnaire for Investigations Processing (eQIP) to submit background information electronically. Use of the system speeds the process of collecting background information, and it guarantees the information collected is complete and accurate, Johnson said.

In October military, civilian and contractor employees used eQIP for an average of about 4,250 background investigations a week, OPM director Linda Springer said. In June employees had requested an average of only about 370 investigations through eQIP, she said.

The Government Accountability Office, which conducted a preliminary review of the Bush administration’s plan, said it provides many metrics for monitoring the timeliness of the clearance process. But GAO auditors criticized the plan for being short on details about how agencies will achieve those metrics or what resources they will need.

Derek Stewart, director of defense capabilities and management at GAO, testified that the administration’s plan focuses on improving the timeliness of the clearance process without adequately addressing the quality of security clearances being conducted. Stewart said counterintelligence leads might be a useful metric for measuring quality.

“Developers of the plan may want to consider adding other indicators of the quality of investigations, such as the number of counterintelligence leads generated from security clearance investigations and forwarded to relevant units,” he said.

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