Government leaders with oversight of the security clearance process were in the hot seat today as a subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee held a hearing on the security clearance investigation process.
At the beginning of the hearing subcommittee Chairman Sen. John Tester laid out the mission statement of the hearing – ‘Are we handling background investigations effectively, and in a way that is deserving of our trust?’
Oversight, metrics, cost and contractors were main themes addressed, in what was largely seen as the start of a new conversation on access to classified information in the wake of the leak of the NSA‘s PRISM monitoring program.
A $1 Billion Program
Sen. Claire McCaskill noted that the security clearance investigations process costs over $1 billion annually, yet is ‘fraught with abuse.’ She was fiery in her criticism for the lack of oversight, specifically over the fund managed by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), who conducts over 90 percent of security clearance investigations and is reimbursed by other agencies for the associated costs. The $1 billion fund has never been audited.
McCaskill also expressed concern that one contractor is responsible for 65 percent of investigations. Despite the thousands of government and contract investigators only eighteen people have been convicted of falsifying information, McCaskill said. When she asked why the number was so low, however, Patrick E. McFarland, inspector general, U.S. Office of Personnel Management stated that he expects the actual number is much larger.
“There could be considerably more fraud,” McFarland said. “I don’t think we’ve caught it all.”
MISSING INFORMATION THE NORM IN INVESTIGATIONS
Sen. Rob Portman noted that a 2009 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that 87 percent of security clearance reports were missing background information. Members of Congress challenged that quality may have given way to quantity when it comes to investigations.
There is a mandated 40-day challenge for timeliness, said Merton Miller, associate director of investigations, Federal Investigative Services, U.S. Office of Personnel Management. And when it comes to missing information in a security clearance investigation, much of that includes gaps where an investigator is simply unable to get a response from an employer. In other instances, an individual may not be available for a subject interview due to deployment – each of those instances results in incomplete information.
Several GAO reports criticize elements of the security clearance process, yet outside of speeding the clearance process few other efforts to improve the process have taken hold. Documentation is one area for improvement, noted Brenda S. Farrel Director, Defense Capabilities and Management, U.S. Government Accountability Office. In the case of incomplete investigations, better effort should be made to document areas where information is not available.
Farrel also highlighted a recent GAO report which found there was no overall guidance concerning classification levels and which positions require security clearances. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has oversight over the classification process, but draft guidance on determining position classification has never been implemented. In the absence of standard guidance many organizations are using government suitability standards rather than a more robust analysis of classification levels.
SHOULD CONTRACTORS PAY FOR CLEARANCES?
McCaskill ended the hearing by questioning why the U.S. government paid $252 million in Fiscal Year 2012 to obtain security clearances for contractors. In response to her question of why the government wouldn’t require contractors to reimburse the government for those expenses, Stanley Sims, Defense Security Service director stated that when they had considered having contractors pay for clearances in the past, it was determined the federal government could actually save money by retaining those costs. If contractors are left to foot the bill, they would then need to establish their own management structure to oversee the process – a cost which would then be passed on to the government.
Today’s hearing left as many questions as it answered, including:
-How can the investigation process be improved?
-Why isn’t there a single tool for establishing what classification level is needed for a position?
I think we can expect many hearings to come as the government looks to address those issues.