Top-secret security reviews don't pass muster, report says

In reviewing requests for top-secret security clearances, the Defense Department has failed to consistently document important information on applicants, including data on their personal finances, according to a new report from the General Accounting Office. Personnel security specialists at the Defense Department did not document important risk factors, including unexplained wealth, personal conduct and foreign influence in one-third of the employee security clearance requests they reviewed during fiscal 2000. "As a result, DoD has been unable to demonstrate that it fully considered all significant adverse conditions that might call into question an individual's ability to adequately safeguard classified information in granting eligibility for top secret clearances," said the report, "DoD Personnel: More Consistency Needed in Determining Eligibility for Top Secret Security Clearances" (GAO-01-465). GAO also found that in one-sixth of the cases studied, Defense reviewers granted clearance to applicants in the absence of personal information that may have indicated a risk to national security. After a Defense employee or contractor submits a security clearance request, the government or a federal contractor conducts a security investigation and sends the results to an adjudication facility, where a personnel security specialist reviews the findings. With security clearances, employees can gain access to highly classified information ranging from data on nuclear weapons systems to the identity of intelligence agents. Defense officials have not provided security specialists with clear guidance or required proper training in reviewing top-secret clearance requests, said GAO. The department also needs to implement uniform quality assurance controls to identify problem areas that require additional guidance or training, according to the report. GAO estimated that in 12 percent of the cases it studied, issues related to an applicant's personal finances, including large credit card debts, bankruptcies and unexplained wealth posed a risk to national security, but went undocumented by Defense security specialists. Information such as prior arrests and frequent travel to foreign countries was also not noted. Defense officials concurred with GAO's findings, and said the department plans to look at revised guidelines on the security clearance review process by September 2001. Defense expects the revised guidance to help reviewers document important background information more consistently. Defense also plans to implement a peer review process for security specialists and create a team that will conduct three reviews per year of adjudication facilities. In 1997, President Clinton approved federal guidelines establishing a common set of standards for investigating and reviewing requests for security clearances. The guidelines were issued in response to Executive Order 12968, which said security policies must ensure consistent, cost-effective and efficient protection of classified information. According to GAO, 80 federal employees and contractors were convicted of espionage between 1982 and 1999, 68 of them Defense employees. A 1999 GAO study (GAO/NSIAD-00-12) also identified weaknesses in Defense security clearance investigations.
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