Yesterday, the Senate Select Intelligence Committee unanimously voted for measures aimed at fighting cyberterrorism and fixing the security clearance process. The Matthew Young Pollard Intelligence Authorization Act (IAA) for Fiscal Years 2018 and 2019 sets aside funding, delegates authorities, and increases Congressional oversight over the intelligence community. The legislation is named for Matt Pollard, a dedicated Committee staffer who passed away in April.
Why is security clearance reform necessary?
The security clearance process has been getting a lot of coverage lately. With more than 700,000 investigations backlogged, the process has once again been added to the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) High Risk list. The process will also be changing hands from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) back to the Department of Defense.
Given the huge role of the defense and intelligence industries in Northern Virginia, Committee Vice Chairman Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) has made security clearance reform a top priority. Last week he spoke to members of the Northern Virginia Tech Council (NVTC), emphasizing that security clearance delays and cyber threats from abroad are tightly linked. He frequently underlined Russian interference in the 2016 elections as cause for this kind of legislation.
The committee’s Chairman, Richard Burr (R-NC), echoed these concerns. In a recent press release, he stated:
“The 2019 Intelligence Authorization Act represents a bipartisan effort to enhance America’s national security and increase government efficiency. With ever-increasing threats from China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, we recognize that the Intelligence Community (IC) must have the resources, authorities and personnel necessary to keep America safe, while still remaining accountable to Congress for their efforts and expenditures. New security clearance reforms included in this bill will help deter insider threats, protect classified information and ensure the IC has a capable, agile workforce. Lastly, in the wake of foreign efforts to interfere with the 2016 U.S. elections, which this Committee continues to investigate, I am pleased to see this bill contains comprehensive measures to enhance our election security. It is vital that we ensure our voting process remains fair and free from undue influence.”
What measures does the IAA Take to reform the clearance process?
The overall goals of the Intelligence Authorization act are to break up the 700,000 case backlog and be able to hire sufficient personnel – particularly in the STEM fields – to enhance readiness and protocols against cyber attacks. The bill calls out several measures to achieve this goal, including:
- Reducing the background investigation backlog to 200,000 by the end of 2019.
- Consolidating the background investigation function between the National Background Investigation Bureau (NBIB) and the DoD.
- Requiring Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to
- Reexamine the SF-86 questionnaire and the adjudicative standards,
- Expand innovative techniques for investigative interviews (like Skype interviews),
- Employ continuous evaluation instead of periodic reinvestigations,
- Maintain consistent policies on interim clearances and treatment between government and contract employees, and
- Make use of automated records checks from previous employers.
The bill hopes that these measures will eventually lead to:
will this bill actually fix the security clearance process?
Measures to increase oversight and accountability have tried and failed before. On the bright side, this bill probably can’t make it any worse than it already is. The bill also takes appropriate steps to hold the ODNI accountable for making the policy changes necessary to improve clearance processing times and make the information gathered in the investigation process more relevant.
But even before any of these measures can be taken, the bill has only cleared its first hurdle: being voted out of committee. It’s still a long road before it becomes law. However, security clearance reform is one of the uniquely bipartisan issues facing federal lawmakers. The fact that the bill passed out of committee 15-0 across party lines is an encouraging sign in an increasingly dead-locked Congress. Here’s hoping…