Few appeased by DOD’s clearance Band-Aid

The Defense Department’s limited resumption of processing security clearances last week didn’t satisfy angry legislators. They are still fuming because DOD suddenly stopped processing applications in April after the Defense Security Service (DSS) ran out of money to pay for them.

The lawmakers lambasted officials from DOD, the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Personnel Management and the Government Accountability Office in two separate hearings May 17. Less than 24 hours after DOD said it had found $28 million to resume processing some clearances, House and Senate committee members warned the officials against a repeat shutdown and told them to fix the Eisenhower-era system before the end of the year.

Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia Subcommittee, ordered officials in the hearing room to come back with a plan in six months that will permanently solve the clearance problem. “I expect you to do that,” he said.

The halt was a nasty surprise, said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee. “Unfortunately, this is not the first disruption of a troubled DOD system that seems to be suffering a cyclic downward spiral,” he said.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said the problems in clearing contract employees “have not gotten better, they’ve gotten worse” since OPM took over the clearance process in February 2005.

Several government officials sat in the hot seat before the committees, including: Clay Johnson, OMB’s acting director; Robert Andrews, deputy undersecretary of Defense for counterintelligence and security; Robert Rogalski, special assistant at the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence; Janice Haith, acting director of DSS; Kathy Dillaman, associate director of OPM’s Federal Investigative Services Division; and Derek Stewart, director of defense capabilities and management at GAO.

The officials testified that they have made progress in handling a mounting number of clearance requests. They agreed that funding has been inadequate and that delays are unacceptably long in reaching agreements that let contractors carry security clearances with them if they switch employers.

When Davis asked why Congress was not informed about the lack of sufficient funds or given any warning of the sudden shutdown at DSS, Johnson said, “That was a mistake on our part.”

Andrews said more information is classified now than previously, which means that more security clearances are necessary, especially at the military’s top-secret level. “We just didn’t adequately plan for those increases,” he said.

A top-secret clearance costs OPM about $3,500. Dillaman said the agency inherited a $10 million payroll and a backlog of about 70,000 open investigations. But, she added, “I’m highly optimistic about getting the backlog under control by the end of the year.”

Dillaman said OPM has reduced the time it takes to process top-secret clearances from 284 days in June 2005 to 171 days. The agency has also reduced processing times for other clearances, she said.

Stewart said the performance problems were largely because of OPM’s inexperience with security clearances. He added that DOD’s inability to anticipate its workload contributed to the problem.

At both hearings, lawmakers and industry officials expressed their concerns that an on-again, off-again clearance process would accelerate salary demands and harm U.S. security needs. They added that reciprocal clearances are a necessity.

Doug Wagoner, chairman of the Information Technology Association of America’s intelligence committee, said keeping qualified employees from working is creating salary premiums of as much as 25 percent for employees with clearances. It also prevents companies from meeting their contract requirements.

Wagoner said DSS may suspend its activity, but the country’s enemies are not suspending theirs. The ITAA member organizations “are truly worried about the impact of this decision on the many missions we support,” he said. “For the long term, our nation needs a complete overhaul of the security clearance bureaucracy.”

ITAA: 3 ways to fix the clearance crisisThe Information Technology Association of America, which represents many companies that need employees with security clearances, wants the government to take steps to prevent another breakdown in security clearance processing.

Last week ITAA asked lawmakers to:

  • Find immediate funding to reinstate processing of all clearances and periodic reinvestigations.

  • Launch an investigation into how Defense Security Service funds ran out so early in the fiscal year.

  • Institute a legislative overhaul of the security clearance process, programs and related bureaucracy with the immediate infusion of up-to-date technology.

About the Author

David Hubler is the former print managing editor for GCN and senior editor for Washington Technology. He is freelance writer living in Annandale, Va.

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