Agency officials from the Defense Department and the Office of Personnel Management, along with a handful of other agencies, cited significant improvements in both timeliness and accuracy in the security-clearance program at a hearing of the Senate Oversight and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management.
The hearing — the 15th on the security-clearance program since 2005 — was a far cry from previous ones on the program, which was once plagued by costly delays and a longstanding backlog.
Among the encouraging statistics presented:
DoD cut the time it takes to process to an average of 46 days for 90 percent of its initial clearances, well within a 60-day timeframe established by Congress. That led the Government Accountability Office to remove the program from its high- risk list last year, the first time GAO had ever done so for a defense-related issue.
DoD also drastically reduced the adjudication process, where a background check is evaluated by agency reviewers to determine an applicant’s fitness for a particular job responsibility. Facing a mandate to adjudicate within 20 days, DoD Deputy Chief Management Officer Elizabeth McGrath said DoD now does so in “a fleet seven days.”
The department also has established several quality metrics for evaluating the quality of investigations.
OPM — the agency responsible for 90 percent of initial background investigations — made its way through a backlog GAO once estimated at 350,000 cases.
“Today, OPM’s background investigation program’s performance is strong, as demonstrated by years of providing timely and quality products to our customer agencies,” said Merton Miller, the associate director of OPM’s Federal Investigative Services. “We have no backlogs, are meeting timeliness mandates and have increased automation.”
The agencies agreed, however, much work remains to maintain that progress.
“The real challenge going forward will be to sustain the attention to this area and to enhance the efforts that have been put in place and to make sure … there’s not any potential for there to be slippage in any of the progress that’s been achieved,” Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, the head of GAO, told lawmakers in his opening statement.
Council, agency coordination drove reforms
The often-complex security-clearance process involves multiple agencies. DoD typically determines which personnel require access to classified information and, thus, must undergo checks. The Office of Personnel Management actually conducts the investigations.
When Congress approved the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA), the average processing time for initial clearances was a torpid 265 days. IRTPA set milestones for reducing processing times.
GAO cited robust congressional oversight and the “committed leadership” of the Suitability and Security Clearance Performance Accountability Council, or PAC, as a key driver of the reforms.
“The advances DoD has made thus far in security clearance processing, timeliness and quality would not have been achieved without the dedication and top-down direction from the PAC,” McGrath said in her prepared remarks.
For its part, DoD, the federal government’s largest customer of security-clearance investigations, has played an active role in reform, she added.
“Not content to be a demanding customer, we have scoured our internal processes and standards for conducting adjudications and raised our game, vying for best-in- government timelines, while fortifying underlying quality assurance programs with improved guidance and enterprise-wide technological tools,” McGrath said.
Reciprocity, technology remain issues
Among the issues still posing a challenge for agencies, however, is reciprocity. Agencies use background investigations for a variety of purposes — to determine suitability for a federal job or access to classified material, among others. But there is little coordination — or reciprocity — between the various systems.
Office of Management and Budget Controller Danny Werfel said OPM and the intelligence community have hammered out policy guidance and training standards for both agency investigators and adjudicators in effort to develop better coordination among agencies. Doing so could reduce overlap and duplicated efforts.
OPM has also taken great strides to leverage technology in the investigation process. Werfel told the committee more than 99 percent of clearance applications OPM receives are submitted electronically using a system called e-Qip. The PAC is now working to replicate that system in the intelligence community, he said.
However, OPM is still saddled with a paper-based filing system because a few agencies do not file electronically.
“I think it’s just a lot of elbow grease that’s required on our behalf to go in and make sure that the agencies are focused on taking those critical steps to deploy these modernized solutions,” Werfel said. “I think it’s pretty clear what the results are. I think it’s about just pushing to make sure it’s a priority,” he said.
Reinvestigations seek to protect ‘crown jewels’
Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), the chairman of the subcommittee, pointed out that most of the progress in processing timelines has come only with initial clearances as opposed to the continuous monitoring or re-investigation of already-cleared personnel.
Charles Sowell, ODNI’s deputy assistant director for special security, said that remains a priority.
“Someone who doesn’t have a clearance doesn’t have access to the crown jewels,” he said. “The people who are inside the system with access to our most sensitive secrets are the populations that we are the most concerned about.”
The IRTPA law only set timeliness goals for initial clearances, Sowell said. While agencies have begun periodic reinvestigations, there may still be gaps in the process.
“Our challenge is that while agencies are meeting those goals, there is a problem where you’re only being measured when you submit the periodic reinvestigation through the process,” he said. “So, if you haven’t submitted someone for a reinvestigation, they’re not being tracked.”
This year, ODNI began tracking agencies’ backlog of periodic reinvestigations, Sowell told Akaka.
Francis Rose is the host of In Depth, which airs weekdays from 8-10 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, D.C. metro area and online everywhere. Francis has covered all three branches of the federal government as a broadcast journalist since 1998. He joined Federal News Radio in 2006, and launched In Depth in 2008 as a daily show focused on connecting federal executives to the information they need to do their jobs better.