GAO urges action on clearances

DOD Personnel Clearances: Additional OMB Actions Are Needed to Improve Security Clearance Process

A Government Accountability Office report suggests that the Office of Management and Budget bears significant management responsibility for improving the security clearance process. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, issued a statement earlier this month urging OMB to do more to speed the processing of clearance applications. Davis said a close reading of the report and conversations with stakeholders reveal both good and bad news about the speed and quality of clearance investigations.

Davis said the report indicates that the government is not meeting its goals for processing initial investigations, reinvestigations and adjudications, and he said the document offers recommendations.

For example, GAO found that an inexperienced investigative workforce and its failure to use information technology to the greatest extent possible are two reasons for the missed goals. OMB’s benchmark is 14 days for completing the application submission phase of the security clearance process. In reality, that phase takes an average of 111 days to complete, GAO found. Initial clearance investigations should take no more than 180 days under OMB’s guidelines, but the average time is 289 days, according to the report.

GAO found that too many investigations were missing key information. Most background checks studies were incomplete, with gaps in potentially critical areas such as foreign contacts and income sources. Davis said reaching a basic clearance decision on a contractor whose work is critical to timely performance shouldn’t take more than a year.

GAO’s review focused on security clearance applications that were submitted at the end of 2004. That was before the February 2005 transfer of pending clearance applications from the Defense Security Service to OPM and before lawmakers passed the security clearance modernization provisions that Davis wrote. The provisions became part of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act that President Bush signed in December 2004.

“The system needs to be, and I believe is being, re-engineered from end to end, making greater use of technology and providing real-time visibility of the status of all investigations,” Davis said.

He added that the GAO report largely verifies that the clearance process was in terrible shape when DOD transferred its investigations functions to OPM. “I am certain that a sample of more current cases would show significant improvement in both timeliness and consistent investigative standards,” Davis said.

In a written response to GAO, OMB’s Deputy Director for Management Clay Johnson said the agency has begun fixing the problem.

“I agree with the report’s conclusion that agencies must identify and implement new investigative and adjudicative solutions to improve the quality and timeliness of background investigations,” he wrote. “This summer the Security Clearance Work Group established a subcommittee, chaired by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, to do just that.”

Johnson said he disagreed with some of the specific statistics in the GAO report. But he added that the strategic plan developed in 2005 for the clearance process is still valuable.

He said OMB will re-examine it in 2007 to “ensure it is current and suitably aggressive.”

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