Agencies have a long way to go to fix security clearance problems, GAO says

Shutterstock image (by elnavegante): open envelope with top secret stamped across its cover. 

A new GAO audit has found that many federal agencies have yet to implement years-old recommendations to reform and speed up their security clearance processes.

The report covers the time period between 2012 and 2016 and examines the progress made by executive branch agencies in reforming their security clearance processes, whether they met established timeliness objectives and the extent to which the recently established National Bureau of Background Investigations has helped to streamline the process.

GAO found that agencies had made some progress in reforming their clearance practices, such as incorporating polygraphs and social media as part of their investigative processes, shared services around electronic filing of background documents and a single, common set of adjudicative criteria.

However, other metrics indicate that agencies have actually gotten worse at processing clearance information over the past five years. For example, auditors found 59 percent of executive branch agencies were meeting their own investigation and adjudication timelines for initial top-secret clearances in 2012. Just 10 percent of agencies said the same in 2016.

The report also took NBIB to task, saying agency leadership "has not developed a plan to reduce the size of the investigation backlog to a manageable level." The federal government is currently dealing with a massive security clearance backlog -- approximately 700,000, according to NBIB director Charles Phalen. The delays have stymied work and caused frustration within both federal agencies and the contractor community.

After terminating contractor USIS following the 2015 OPM breach, NBIB lost a huge chunk of its investigative workforce. While the agency has taken actions to beef up hiring, officials estimate the current workforce would not be able to reduce the backlog to a "healthy" level of 180,000 until 2022 at the earliest.

"Ultimately, if NBIB is unable to reduce the investigation backlog, executive branch agencies will continue to lack the cleared personnel needed to help execute their respective missions, which poses potential risks to national security," wrote auditors.

The report flagged continuous evaluation, the process by which agencies keep tabs on candidates and clearance holders across a range of public and private databases as well as social media and other public information sources, as a key driver to potentially speed up background investigations.

The Departments of Defense and State have piloted their own versions of continuous evaluation, but the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and other agencies have largely stumbled in following suit even after federal investigative standards were updated in 2012 to include the practice.

In particular, ODNI has been forced to repeatedly push back timelines on issuing guidance documents related to continuous evaluation and security clearance reciprocity – agencies honoring clearances granted by other agencies -- over the years. In 2015 auditors "found that executive branch agencies still did not consistently track when reciprocity is or is not granted, nor did they have metrics in place to measure how often reciprocity occurs," a problem that has still not been addressed as of November 2017.

The report made recommended that the director of national intelligence set milestones for the completion of governmentwide performance measures around the quality of investigations, conduct evidence based reviews of investigation and adjudication timeliness and a separate government-wide plan to meet those timeliness objectives. Additionally, the NBIB director should develop a more robust plan for reducing the clearance backlog, increase investigator capacity and reassess its strategic workforce plans to meet these goals.

ODNI disagreed with many of the report's conclusions, arguing in a reply that they "do not present an accurate assessment of the current status of the executive branch personnel security clearance process" nor "ongoing initiatives conducted to date."

OPM acting Director Kathleen McGettigan took a different tone, concurring with all three recommendations directed towards NBIB expressing appreciation for "the collaborative and fair-minded approach" GAO took in developing the report. McGettigan noted that in September 2016 OPM awarded four new contracts for investigator services that have added more than 800 investigators to the workforce as of October 2017.

"We agree that an increase in investigator capacity – both federal and contractor – is critical in order to reduce the current inventory," wrote McGettigan.

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a former senior staff writer at FCW.


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