OPM cuts clearance processing time; DOD partner begs for funds

The Defense Security Service is short $25 million for the remainder of the fiscal year even as OMB's Clay Johnson says clearance processing time has been cut in most cases.

The Office of Personnel Management has reduced the time it takes to fulfill most recently initiated security clearances, Clay Johnson, Office of Management and Budget deputy director for management, told lawmakers May 17. Investigations into security clearances that agencies have begun since October 2006 have taken 95 days to complete, he said. In fiscal 2005, secret or confidential clearances averaged 155 days and top secret required 347 days, Johnson said.“We intend to remain tightly wound on this issue,” he told the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and Washington, D.C.OMB will focus on reducing the backlog of security clearances, expand the number and quality of investigations and adjudications, and use technology to share and transfer files. The demand for and backlog of security clearances has mushroomed as the number of jobs requiring them has skyrocketed since the terrorist attacks of 2001. The federal government will still need a new security clearance process to reach by December 2009 the goals set out by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Protection Act of 2004. Johnson said he expects a detailed plan of that vision in mid-summer. Intelligence agencies also have formed a research and development subcommittee as part of the Security Clearance Oversight Committee to identify new standards and methods for electronic transmission. The committee will produce a timetable next month and begin research, Johnson testified. Despite finding progress in clearance timeliness, lawmakers were somewhat surprised that the Defense Department agency that approves security clearances was desperate for funds. “We have so many examples of agencies trying to reform themselves and when they ask for resources, they don’t get the money,” said Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, ranking Republican on the subcommittee. DOD received all the funds it requested, Johnson said. The money might not be applied to the right place, however. “DOD does not need more total money to fix clearances,” Johnson said. “If they want to move money around, we will help them do that.”Voinovich replied, “It’s incumbent upon you, Mr. Johnson, to lean on someone at DOD to make that money available.” Johnson said he couldn’t make the department reallocate the money, but would press the message of its importance. DOD’s Defense Security Service is short $25 million for the remainder of the fiscal year, said DSS Director Kathleen Watson. She has already acted on the problem; DOD has approved reprogramming $25 million. Now Congress must authorize it. The agency will likely face another shortfall next year. “The difference between what we need next year to sustain us versus what we need to improve ourselves is $80 million,” Watson said. DSS also needs to replace its Joint Personnel Adjudication System, which is used to obtain and verify clearance information and requires $10 million annually to maintain. DSS has upgraded it numerous times. Last year, the service temporarily suspended the processing of personnel security clearances for industry because it lacked enough funds to pay OPM for investigations, a situation the two agencies resolved. “DSS has corrected many of the root causes that led to last year’s shutdown,” said Robert Andrews, deputy undersecretary of Defense for counterintelligence and security. Agencies’ use of compatible technology will further improve the timeliness and quality of security clearances, said Kathy Dillaman, OPM’s associate director of the Federal Investigative Services Division. For example, more agencies use OPM’s electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing (e-QIP), which provides for complete and consistent information. In March, submissions for initial clearance investigations through e-QIP averaged 14 days while paper submissions took 30 days. OPM also is developing an imaging system to transmit electronically the completed investigations to the adjudications facility and link an agency’s record system to OPM’s database for electronic updating of their actions. OPM is pilot testing this with nine agencies and will put it in production in October. “In fiscal 2008, we expect that this imaging system will be used to migrate from hardcopy pending case files to a virtual case file system, which will further streamline processing times within OPM and across government,” Dillaman said.
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