National Security

Obama wraps up security clearance reforms

Shutterstock image (by Jirsak): customer care, relationship management, and leadership concept. 

With roughly a half million individuals awaiting either their initial security clearance or a reinvestigation, the Obama administration has just released an executive order designed to reform and streamline the clearance process.

The intent of the 23-page order is to put in place a set of standards that will clear and vet government workers and contractors to work in "sensitive positions" faster than the current system. It will also improve reciprocity and transferability of cleared workers from one agency to another.

"The aligned executive branch-wide vetting enterprise shall employ modern and consistent standards and methods, enable innovations with enterprise information technology capabilities and end-to-end automation to the extent practicable, and ensure that relevant information maintained by agencies can be accessed and shared rapidly across the executive branch," the order states.

The order formalizes the Security, Suitability, and Credentialing Performance Accountability Council created to improve the clearance process in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks and the Navy Yard shooting. The deputy director of management in the Office of Management and Budget serves as chair.

The other members of the council are the director of national intelligence who serves as the "security executive agent," the director of the Office of Personnel Management in the role of "suitability and credentialing executive agent," the undersecretary of defense for intelligence and now the director of the recently established National Background Investigations Bureau. 

The PAC is tasked with 12 functions, such as defining reciprocity requirements, ensuring enterprisewide alignment of processes, working with agencies to implement continuous performance improvements and holding agencies accountable for implementation of policies.

The NBIB, which was launched last fall, is the central agency responsible for investigating candidates. The Department of Defense is building a new network for the NBIB that is designed to be more robust than the OPM system that was hacked by China.

Adjudication of the NBIB investigations will still be conducted by individual agencies according to their specific needs, but a central goal of the order is to create more standardization of those individual needs.

The order also institutes practices that experts and advocacy groups have been calling for, in some cases, for years.

The new system will use a risk management focus, continuous vetting and move towards a continuous monitoring approach.

"Executive branch vetting policies and procedures shall be sustained by an enhanced risk-management approach that facilitates early detection of issues by an informed, aware, and responsible Federal workforce," the order states.

Katherine Pherson, vice chair of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance's Security Policy Reform Council, has been focused on security clearance reform for years and told FCW that this executive order creates a more uniform baseline across the entire government that will generate a number of efficiencies -- though likely more so on the reciprocity side than the initial clearance side.

She said the PAC will bring together agencies that previously had not communicated or coordinated effectively about security clearance needs. The PAC is set up to maintain adjudicative criteria and drive implementation of reform, Pherson said.

"It sets up a sufficient structure that if people want this to work, it will work," she said.

Because of the change to a focus on risk management and early warning signs, Pherson said the new system is designed to prevent workplace violence or insider threats.

President Barack Obama set off a firestorm by commuting the sentence of Chelsea Manning, the former Army private who was convicted of espionage for handing classified documents and videos to WikiLeaks.

A spokesman for the Trump transition team called the commutation "troubling" because of the "message it sends on how classified material is handled."

At his final press conference as U.S. president, Barack Obama said that Manning's sentence had been, "disproportionate relative to what other leakers had received, and that she had served a significant amount of time." He added that, " it made it sense to commute -- and not pardon -- her sentence."

The executive order, however, emphasizes the importance of ensuring only those with proper vetting can handle classified information.

The order states that if an investigation finds evidence "an individual may have been subjected to coercion, influence, or pressure to act contrary to the interests of the national security, or information that the individual may pose a counterintelligence or terrorist threat," the case shall be referred to the FBI or other appropriate agencies for investigation.

Pherson said that while the order implements a number of badly needed reforms, and will likely do much more with the resources available, there's more to be done.

"It's a necessary step," she said. "It's not the end be any means. It's a step on the way to transformation."

About the Author

Sean Carberry is a former FCW staff writer who focused on defense, cybersecurity and intelligence.


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