DHS resists security clearance improvements

Agency leaders object to IG suggestions on how to improve the security-clearance process

Homeland Security Department executives are resisting some recommendations from the agency's inspector general to consolidate their handling of security clearance applications. DHS Inspector General Richard Skinner issued the recommendations in a report published June 3.

About 70,000 of the 208,000 DHS employees have jobs that require security clearances to enable them to access classified information. But the process of investigating and awarding the clearances is complex and convoluted, Skinner wrote. DHS component agencies often are “delayed by applicants, overwhelmed by customer service requests, restricted by database functions and limited by information availability” in processing the applications, the report states.

The IG made 20 recommendations, including integrating databases and centralizing security intake processes. But in their written responses, DHS executives were cautious and accepted the recommendations only in part.

For example, Skinner's report notes that people selected for DHS jobs and even human resources executives often have difficulty accessing online security forms. But the various agencies have different approaches to customer service. The IG recommended that those responsibilities be delegated to DHS’ Personnel Security Division.

Jerry Williams, DHS’ chief security officer, backed delegating some of those responsibilities but rejected the idea of a central system. “Each component has unique characteristics and operating requirements that would make consolidation impracticable,” Williams wrote in a response to the draft report.

Furthermore, the IG’s recommendation that DHS create a centralized security intake process and customer service center would necessitate a “significant reallocation of resources and space” and requires further study, Williams said.

“This illustrates the difficulty of moving forward on these issues,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. “The component agencies don’t want this to be integrated into a single uniform system because they all value their autonomy.”

The problems date to the agency's creation in 2002, said Evan Lesser, director of ClearanceJobs.com. The separate agencies under DHS, such as Customs and Border Protection and the Coast Guard, had their own clearance processes before the merger and have not made much progress toward harmonizing their approaches since then.

Fixing the system might require a larger overhaul of the government’s approach to security, said consultant Bruce Schneier. “The problem is that in the end, this system of security clearances doesn’t catch the bad guys,” he said. “All the known spies have had security clearances. These little fixes don’t fix the problem.”

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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