GAO Adds Government Personnel Security Clearance to High-Risk List

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has added government-wide personnel security clearance to its High-Risk List. The list identifies government operations with vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or in need of transformation to address economy, efficiency, or effectiveness challenges.

GAO says the government personnel security clearance process faces significant challenges related to processing clearances in a timely fashion, measuring investigation quality, and ensuring information technology security.

GAO placed government-wide personnel security clearance process on its High-Risk List because of significant challenges related to the timely processing of security clearances and completing the development of quality measures. In addition, the government’s effort to reform the personnel security clearance process, starting with the enactment of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, has had mixed progress, and key reform efforts have not been implemented government-wide.

Since adding this area to the High-Risk List, GAO says the Security Clearance, Suitability, and Credentialing Performance Accountability Council (PAC), including its four principal members—the Deputy Director for Management of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Director of National Intelligence (DNI); the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence; and the Director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM)—have not fully met the criteria for high-risk removal.

GAO’s March 6 report details several issues that contribute to the risks facing the government-wide personnel security clearance process:

Clearance processing delays. The percentage of executive branch agencies meeting established timeliness objectives for initial secret clearances, initial top secret clearances, and periodic reinvestigations decreased each year from fiscal years 2012 through 2018. For example, 97 percent of the executive branch agencies GAO reviewed did not meet the timeliness objectives for initial secret clearance investigations in fiscal year 2018.

Lack of quality measures. While the executive branch has taken steps to establish government-wide performance measures for the quality of background investigations—including establishing quality assessment standards and a quality assessment reporting tool—it is unclear when this effort will be completed.

Security clearance reform delays. The executive branch has reformed many parts of the personnel security clearance process— such as updating adjudicative guidelines to establish common adjudicative criteria for security clearances; however, some longstanding key initiatives remain incomplete—such as completing plans to fully implement and monitor continuous evaluation.

IT security. DOD is responsible for developing a new system to support background investigation processes, and DOD officials expressed concerns about the security of connecting to OPM’s legacy systems since a 2015 data breach compromised OPM’s background investigation systems and files for 21.5 million individuals. As of December 2018, OPM has not fully taken action on GAO’s priority recommendations to update its security plans, evaluate its security control assessments, and implement additional training opportunities.

However, the PAC has demonstrated progress in some areas. For example, NBIB reported that the backlog of background investigations decreased from almost 715,000 cases in January 2018 to approximately 565,000 cases in February 2019. NBIB officials credit an Executive Memorandum—issued jointly in June 2018 by the DNI and the Director of OPM and containing measures to reduce the investigation backlog—as a driver in backlog reduction.

The PAC is also reporting publicly on the progress of key reforms through www.performance.gov, and for fiscal year 2018, the website contains quarterly action plans and progress updates, which present figures on the average timeliness of initial investigations and periodic reinvestigations for the executive branch as a whole, investigation workload and backlog, and investigator headcounts.

GAO makes several recommendations including that the principal members of the PAC conduct an evidence-based review of investigation and adjudication timeliness objectives, develop and report to Congress on investigation quality measures, prioritize the timely completion of efforts to modernize and secure IT systems that affect clearance holders government-wide, and develop and implement a comprehensive workforce plan that identifies the workforce needed to meet current and future demand for background investigations services and to reduce the investigations backlog.

A faulty security clearance process has the potential to become a national security threat. A February 28 New York Times report cited four sources who claimed former chief of staff John Kelly said President Donald Trump ordered him to get a top-level security clearance for his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, approved. Trump told the Times he “was never involved in his [Jared’s] security” clearance.

Kylie Bull has 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. She is an editor and contributor for Jane's by IHS Markit, a columnist for security and counter-terror publications, and a former managing editor for Homeland Security Today.

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