Contractors gripe about DHS clearance woes

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Vendors are losing money while waiting for clearances from the Department of Homeland Security, representatives of contracting firms told a panel of lawmakers at a Feb. 27 hearing.

The problems are many: differing security standards across components, opaque internal processes and slow communications to contractors.

Brandon LaBonte, president and CEO of small tech business ArdentMC, said his employees wait on average 213 days for a DHS fitness determination even though the company has worked with DHS and its components for a decade. One DHS component his company was working for had approved an ArdentMC employee in June but didn't tell the company until February, he said.

The Oversight and Management Subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee also heard from representatives from the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, the Professional Services Council and Homeland Security & Defense Business Council.

The general feelings was that DHS should require reciprocity across agencies, make better use of  data, improve data management and impose stricter cross-cutting standards for components.

Agency "fitness determinations" for contract employees are a sticking point, because each component believes it is doing it the right way according to its needs, said Charles Allen, senior intelligence advisor at the Intelligence and National Security Alliance. Allen, who served in senior intelligence roles at DHS and the CIA, said contractor employees who already have security clearances from intelligence and defense agencies should be able to pass DHS security checks with no problem, yet DHS agencies subject them to their individual vetting processes.

The culture of separation and long delays for contractors to get a component fitness determination can also apply to DHS employees looking to shift jobs between components, said David Berteau, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council.

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) wondered if DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen had the authority to change the processes across components.

"There is no statutory or regulatory impediments" to the DHS secretary doing so, said Berteau. However, he said, if a DHS component has to hand off some of its background-checking work to the Office of Personnel Management for deeper investigation, things would get more complicated.

Berteau suggested that components could be compelled by DHS to provide data on the number of fitness determinations they have received, how many they have approved or completed and the number they haven't processed. Concrete data would give the secretary ammunition to bring management incentives to bear on those that have problems.

Over the last 10 years, LaBonte said, things have gotten progressively worse at DHS with security clearances.  "That means the agency's management can make things better."

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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