Security Clearance Reforms Aim for Improved Access, Continuous Evaluation

By Roy Maurer Apr 10, 2014

Seven months after 12 people were gunned down by a troubled government contractor at the Washington Navy Yard, an interagency review panel chaired by the White House Office of Management and Budget announced a series of recommendations designed to improve the federal security clearance process.

According to the published report, the review found needs for increased availability and quality of critical information to improve decision-making; improvement of the consistency, timeliness and completeness of re-investigations; and better oversight of investigative work.

Fallout from the Navy Yard tragedy led to criticism of the federal security clearance process and specifically the work of Falls Church, Va.-based contractor USIS, which conducts about two-thirds of federal background checks on private contractors and has since been charged with fraud by the Justice Department for submitting incomplete background checks.

Lawmakers held hearings and introduced legislation tightening oversight of contractors involved in the clearance process, and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) announced that the quality review process for federal background investigations would “be fully federalized” effective Feb. 24, 2014. “Only federal employees will be conducting the final quality review before the investigative product is sent to the agency for review and adjudication … to prevent any contractor from performing the final quality review of its own work,” said OPM Director Katherine Archuleta. “Letting federal contractors review their own work is like letting the fox guard the henhouse,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who introduced the oversight legislation.

Key Recommendations

The review panel concluded that “significant policy, technology, budgetary and jurisdictional barriers” prevented federal background investigators from doing their job effectively. It was noted that although current law directs state and local law enforcement agencies to provide criminal history records information to federal background investigators, this is not always done, resulting in incomplete data sources.

“Most law enforcement agencies complied with our records requests, but not all,” remarked John Perkins, an experienced clearance and background investigator who spent nine years with USIS. Perkins told SHRM Online that he “occasionally ran into uncooperative law enforcement agencies or subjects providing false information. But, in my personal experience, it wasn’t very often.”

Incomplete information can critically compromise the results of an investigation, such as when the Seattle Police Department failed to reveal to investigators the Navy Yard shooter’s 2004 arrest for use of a firearm.

The federal government will explore options to ensure state and local entities comply with their obligations to make criminal history information available, including “leveraging related federal funding.”

The actions of government employers, co-workers and the employees themselves were also found lacking. The panel found that “clear and consistent requirements do not exist across government for employees or contractors to report, subsequent to their being hired or granted a clearance, information that could affect their continued fitness, suitability, or eligibility for federal employment or their eligibility to access government facilities. … neither is there consistent guidance in place to direct contractors or contract managers in the federal government to report noteworthy or derogatory information regarding employees.” For example, no reports were made of the Navy Yard shooter’s multiple arrests or other personal conduct issues by managers in the Navy or colleagues who were aware of his conduct.

Perkins agreed that reportable information does sometimes go unreported, but lack of cooperation from other stakeholders sometimes plays a role in creating that gap. “A subject might report an arrest from a city police department, so the investigator might know that the arrest record exists. But, if the city police department doesn’t cooperate, then that reportable information might go unreported,” he said.

The government intends to train supervisors and employees to identify and report “counterproductive” work behaviors and to facilitate self-reporting. Additionally, the panel will recommend the Office of Federal Procurement Policy impose reporting requirements on contractors.

Another major issue that was raised after the Navy Yard case was the infrequency of re-investigations, creating gaps in coverage. A number of pilot tests are under way to explore continuous evaluation options. These pilot programs are assessing automated data checks from multiple sources, such as credit checks, social media, personnel records and self-reporting that will enable agencies to prioritize their efforts on those who appear to have the highest risk, according to the report.

“The shift to continuous evaluation [CE] will mean a different way of conducting investigations,” the panel said. “As automation and other capabilities increase, we recommend driving toward a CE system that would, to the greatest extent possible, notify appropriate security officials of noteworthy events or incidents in near-real time.” The panel envisions accessing data sources in greater volume and with more frequency than currently. “By identifying issues between reinvestigations, CE will more frequently evaluate employees and contractors who are eligible for access to classified information by using periodic, random, and event-driven assessments to better resolve issues or identify risks to national security.”

The panel admitted that the envisioned system poses technical and procedural challenges and that “currently there is no governmentwide capability, plan or design present in the investigative community to operate a data-driven architecture to collect, store and share relevant information.”

Other recommendations included using a risk-based approach to reduce the backlog of re-investigations, reducing the number of security clearance holders, and accelerating the development of quality standards and consistent measures and metrics for investigations and adjudications.

Perkins noted that, even if the security clearance process improves, employers need to be mindful that there is a random element to human nature that can never be completely accounted for. “You could build a ship a thousand times more seaworthy than anything afloat today, but you can’t build a ship that is unsinkable. The interagency panel’s recommendations point toward an ideal of perfect security and reliability. It is the nature of ideals that they can’t ever be reached, but the steps we take in striving for those goals are worth the effort.”

The administration will develop and release a detailed implementation plan in the coming months, including updates of the timelines outlined in the report, the OMB said.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy


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