Security Clearance Process Lacks Quality Control

By Roy Maurer Nov 18, 2013

Aaron Alexis had a valid secret-level government clearance when he passed through security into the Washington Navy Yard on Sept. 16, 2013, and killed 12 people before police shot him dead.

Since then, the clearance screening process that allowed Alexis to enter the facility has come under intense scrutiny, in the forms of lawsuits, congressional hearings and investigative reports.

Legislation has been introduced that would overhaul the system used by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which conducts 95 percent of federal background checks, while the White House Office of Management and Budget has begun a 120-day review of the clearance process.

Brenda Farrell, director of defense capabilities and management at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), told a House panel on homeland security that the OPM and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence are collaborating more effectively on security clearances since the Navy Yard tragedy. However, the government still lacks consistent agencywide quality control.

“Quality metrics need to be built in to every step of the process,” she told the House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. “We really don’t know if background investigations meet federal standards.”

‘Just Checking Boxes’

Elaine Kaplan, the OPM’s acting director at the time of the shooting, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that her agency “complied with all applicable standards” during its 2007 background investigation of Alexis.

“It is important to understand the relatively limited nature of the investigation prescribed in the standards as they existed in 2007 for individuals like Mr. Alexis being considered for a secret-level clearance in connection with their military service,” Kaplan noted. “Those standards were records-based, unlike the investigations for higher levels of clearance, and did not require that the investigator interview references.”

She also said that each of the approximately 22,000 local law enforcement agencies in the U.S. have different policies and procedures and, because of budget and staffing constraints, often can’t provide records to OPM investigators.

For example, the OPM didn’t seek police reports from the Seattle Police Department in 2007 because in the past the department had simply referred background investigators to the Washington state court records database, where, in Alexis’ case, they found that he had a 2004 dismissed malicious-mischief offense.

The database didn’t have more details about the offense itself, such as that Alexis had shot the tires of a car belonging to a man employed next door to his home.

“In particular, we recognize that evolution of the security-clearance process must include the ability to obtain and easily share relevant information on a more frequent or real-time basis,” Kaplan told the committee.

“Background investigations are dependent on the voluntary cooperation of sources and of records providers, as well as the availability and accessibility of references and records,” she explained. “In some instances, essential personnel are not available for an interview, members of the public are unwilling to provide interviews to investigators or to complete inquiry forms, or records are not made available.”

Calling the revelation that police records are not always checked “shocking” and Kaplan’s rationale “offensive,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said, “If we do a gut check on this issue, we’ll realize a lot of the work we’ve been doing on this has just been checking boxes.”

McCaskill co-sponsored bipartisan legislation that Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, introduced Oct. 31, 2013, that would require the OPM to implement an automated review that would search public records and databases for information on every individual with a security clearance at least twice, at random times, every five years.

The audits would identify information these individuals are already obligated by law to disclose, including information relating to any criminal or civil legal proceeding; financial information relating to the covered individual; data maintained on any terrorist or criminal watch list; and any publicly available information that suggests ill intent, vulnerability to blackmail, compulsive behavior, allegiance to another country or change in the person’s ideology.

If any information pertinent to a security clearance were found, the OPM would have to notify the agency employing the individual. The agency would then make an informed decision as to the worker’s ongoing employment, level of clearance, and access to classified information.

“Although we have made significant advances in the processing of background checks, there is still a gaping hole in the current security-clearance process that has enabled people who exhibit obvious signs of high-risk behavior to remain undetected,” said Collins. “There needs to be a balance between the processing of clearances quickly enough to allow individuals to do their jobs but also thoroughly enough to flag potential problems.”

Alexis’ background check “was commensurate with current investigative standards for secret clearances,” said Brian Prioletti, an assistant director in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. He added, however, that the time interval between periodic reinvestigations leaves the U.S. government potentially uninformed as to behavior that poses a security risk.

Prioletti explained to both the House and Senate committees that holders of top secret clearances are reinvestigated every five years; secret-clearance holders, like Alexis, every 10 years; and employees and contractors in the “confidential” category, every 15 years. Alexis’ clearance wasn’t due to be reviewed until 2017.

“One critical element for a robust security-clearance process is to establish an effective capability to assess an individual’s continuing eligibility on a more frequent basis,” he said.

Prioletti told the committees that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is developing a tool dubbed Continuous Evaluation, which will help close the information gap. The tool will allow for a review at any time of an individual with eligibility or access to classified information, or in a sensitive position, to ensure that the individual continues to meet the eligibility requirements.

GAO Stresses Quality-Control Metrics

The GAO’s Farrell urged lawmakers to focus oversight on the various agencies responsible for coordinating the government’s security-clearance system to ensure that they remain focused on improving the current processes.

“Executive-branch agencies do not consistently assess quality throughout the security-clearance process, in part because they have not fully developed and implemented metrics to measure quality in key aspects of the process,” she said.

For example, the GAO reported in May 2009 that documentation was incomplete for 87 percent of the OPM’s background checks for top secret clearances adjudicated in July 2008 for the Defense Department. The government watchdog also estimated that 12 percent of the 3,500 reports did not contain the required applicant interview. The agency recommended that the OPM measure the frequency with which its reports meet federal investigative standards. As of August 2013, the OPM had not taken action on the recommendation, Farrell said. Further, the GAO reported in 2010 that agencies do not consistently and comprehensively track the reciprocity of personnel security clearances, which is an agency’s acceptance of a background investigation or clearance determination completed by another agency. The OPM created a metric in early 2009 to track reciprocity, but it is not comprehensive, she said.

Prioletti agreed that consistency in the quality of investigations and adjudications must be improved. The OPM’s revised federal investigative standards will provide clear guidance for consistent assessment of continued eligibility for access to classified information, he told the committees.

The standards will be implemented through a phased approach beginning in 2014 and continuing through 2017, he said.

The Department of Homeland Security’s chief security officer, Greg Marshall, noted in his testimony that a background investigation may not be an indicator of future behavior, especially the troubling aspect of deteriorating mental health. “Even those who have successfully undergone the most rigorous set of background checks available—even a comprehensive polygraph examination—may someday prove untrustworthy,” he cautioned. “Ultimately, a federal background investigation only examines past behavior and is sometimes based on limited available information.”

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., concluded that the security-clearance process has many flaws, but he added, “It’s unlikely that a stricter clearance process would have prevented a deranged individual from committing murder.”

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him on Twitter @SHRMRoy.​​​


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