White House urges changes to clearance rules

The government plans to move to a continuous evaluation method for security clearances, which will require new IT systems to store and search through data.

Top Secret

The Obama administration released recommendations for changing the security clearance process for government employees and contractors, including creating a system to continuously evaluate cleared personnel, as part of a review conducted in the wake of the September 2013 Navy Yard shooting.

The government identified several systemic flaws in the background investigation of Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis, an IT contractor with a topsecret security clearance.

The government plans to move to a continuous evaluation method, rather than conducting initial investigations with scheduled follow ups. The shift to a continuous evaluation model will require new IT systems to store and search through data.

As the report notes, "currently there is no government-wide capability, plan, or design present in the investigative community to collect, store, and share relevant information." The recommendations include plans to involve the CIO and the CTO in developing a long-term IT strategy to support continuous evaluation.

The government is seeking a new IT strategy for the clearance process to get a handle on costs, while promoting efficient, government-wide access. The plan is still on the drawing board, but includes offering real-time access to investigation data and electronic access to federal, state and local law enforcement records, building a continuous evaluation system to monitor cleared personnel, a new case management system, and the inclusion of new data in background checks, including social media.

The intelligence community and the Defense Department are leading the way on continuous evaluation. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence expects to have a continuous evaluation capability online in September of this year for especially sensitive posts, and a system in place across intelligence agencies by 2016. Defense has 100,000 personnel in its Automated Continuous Evaluation System, which will be ramped up to 500,000 by the end of 2016.

Continuous evaluation is a means of finding potentially adverse information about a cleared individual that takes place after the initial clearance, but before periodic reinvestigation. Officials remain vague about what they are looking for, but the military program suggests that arrests, financial troubles, domestic violence and drug abuse are among the issues that could trigger the suspension or revocation of a security clearance.

Another improvement is making sure that there is a pipeline of information from state and local law enforcement to clearance investigators. Many jurisdictions, including some metropolitan police departments, routinely refuse to share arrest records and police-report information with investigators conducting background checks. In the case of Alexis, a 2004 firearms incident reported to the Seattle authorities could have left an informational trail that might have alerted investigators to a history of violence.

The administration is also looking to reduce the number of individuals holding a secret or top secret security clearance, now at about 5.1 million. This number includes more than 1.5 million with the top secret clearance -- approximately 850,000 federal employees both civilian and military, almost 500,000 contractors and 180,000 listed as "other." Next month, the administration is expected to conclude a governmentwide review of all jobs, to see if access to classified material can be curtailed in some positions. Once that is done, a new rule defining what constitutes a "national security position" will be issued.

The government also identified the need for standards in terms of database checks to be included in background investigations, such as citizenship verification and Social Security confirmation to prevent people from perpetrating outright identity fraud, as well as the consultation of specialty databases maintained for the intelligence community, and improved military discharge records. The White House also recommends finding ways to use social media information, previously excluded from background checks, as a component of investigations.

"These are common-sense approaches and consistent with recommendations [the Professional Services Council] made over the last several months to OMB, DOD, and the intelligence community," said Stan Soloway, President and CEO of the Professional Services Council, a trade group representing government contractors. "These reviews have appropriately focused on what information is to be reviewed and how to make greater use of a risk- and analytics-based approach."

A separate report released by the Defense Department found that Alexis, a Navy veteran, did not have potentially important information entered into his Joint Personnel Adjudication System file. The report notes that adverse information about Alexis's arrests was not included in the JPAS record because he did not have access to classified information as part of his duties. "This perception is common in the department, as the existing DOD policy is not clear," report found.

The report found that Alexis could have been refused a clearance under the existing system, citing "missed opportunities for intervention that, had they been pursued, may have prevented the tragic result at the Washington Navy Yard."

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