The Government Accountability Office announced it’s adding the federal government’s security clearance process to its High-Risk List of federal programs that require broad transformation or specific reforms.
The National Background Investigations Bureau has struggled to deal with the volume of applications for security clearances required for many government jobs. The backlog, 190,000 in August 2014, now stands at more than 700,000 as of September 2017. The Office of Personnel Management’s goal for a stable backlog is 180,000 cases.
“A high quality and timely personnel security clearance process is essential to minimize the risks of unauthorized disclosures of classified information and to help ensure that information about individuals with criminal histories or other questionable behavior is identified and assessed,” the Comptroller General Gene Dodardo said. “Our objective for the High-Risk List is to bring attention to policymakers of the need for action sooner, rather than later.”
Adding the process to the High-Risk List was scheduled for a regular update until 2019, however, GAO cited 2 of its recent reports identifying the growing backlog and a look at long-term goals for agencies to increase capacity to process cases.
The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act contains provisions that could improve the security clearance backlog. Signed by President Trump last month, it requires the Pentagon to devise a “phased transition plan” to shift background checks to the Defense Security Service and it allows DSS to hire more personnel to deal with the backlog.
This backlog process has been on and off the High-Risk List for years. In 2005, GAO added the Defense Department’s clearance program to the list and in 2007, OPM’s program was added because of issues of timeliness and quality. In 2011, the program was removed after progress was made.
“After GAO removes areas from the High-Risk List, it continues to monitor them to determine if the improvements previously noted are sustained and whether new issues emerge,” GAO wrote. “If significant problems arise, GAO will put an issue back on the list, as it has done in this case.”
Evan Lesser, president of a career site for individuals with an active security clearance said, “Seeing this program placed on GAO’s High-Risk List is just a confirmation of what recruiters, employers, and security clearance applicants have bee experiencing for a long time. The question now is if the placement is met with reforms that really do the job of reducing the processing times that are placing such a significant burden on the industry and discouraging quality applicants from considering great government and contracting positions.”
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), called for an investigation into the security clearance process. “Today’s urgent action by the nonpartisan investigators at GAO confirms what I have been warning about for months: serious deficiencies in our nation’s security clearance processes represent an urgent and grave risk to our national security, not only with respect to systemic challenges but also with respect to specific individuals who should not have access to our nation’s most highly guarded secrets.”
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., ranking member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence said in a letter to the Office of Management and Budget that the White House must prioritize improving the security clearance process in the coming months.
“I request that the president’s budget request for FY2019 ensures adequate funding for departments’ and agencies’ background investigations for purposes of suitability assessments and security clearances,” he wrote. “I also request you treat personnel security as a special topic in the budget request. It is essential that background investigations are treated as a critical mission function that receives attention from our government’s top leadership.”
In recent months, lawmakers have advanced legislation to improve reporting on the clearance backlog. The SECRET Act would require NBIB to report the backlog of federal employees awaiting background investigations on a quarterly basis. The bill awaits a floor vote in the Senate.