Funding, technology cited as key to speeding security clearances

Adequate funding and broader use of technology are essential to improving the process of screening security clearance applicants, government officials told lawmakers Thursday.

At a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on the federal workforce, panelists noted that the Defense Security Service, in particular, has much work left. Budget shortfalls forced DSS to suspend processing of applications last year.

The agency transferred background investigations to the Office of Personnel Management in February 2005, but still covers the cost of processing applications.

Robert Andrews, deputy undersecretary of Defense for counterintelligence and security, said DSS has corrected many of the root causes of last year's suspension. But "it is clear that the present process for personnel security investigations will not support our national needs in the coming years," he added. "It is a labor intensive process that is increasingly vulnerable to attack or exploitation by adversaries and expensive to maintain."

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of the subcommittee, said DSS' computer program used to process clearances -- the Joint Personnel Adjudication System -- "has problems and is on the verge of collapse."

But Andrews said the agency does not have the funding to improve the system, adding that doing so would be "throwing good money into the bad." He said establishing an entirely new screening system would be a more effective use of money.

DSS Director Kathleen Watson said the agency already is facing a budget crisis this fiscal year, and has a pending request for an additional $25 million. "What we need for next year to sustain versus what we need to improve ourselves -- that difference is about $80 million," she said.

Akaka and Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, asked whether responsibility for the funding issues lies with the Pentagon or the Office of Management and Budget.

Clay Johnson, OMB's deputy director for management, told lawmakers that Defense "does not need any more money to fix security clearances." He committed to working with the department to ensure an adequate level of funding is allocated to DSS.

Meanwhile, Kathy Dillaman, associate director of the Federal Investigative Services Division at OPM, noted that agencies have dramatically increased use of OPM's eQIP electronic application tool, which can reduce the time to get a clearance by two to three weeks. All participating agencies are planning to move fully to the technology this fiscal year, she noted.

Dillaman added that OPM also is working to develop an imaging system that would make the clearance process completely electronic. She said it will shorten the process even more by eliminating the time it takes agencies to mail documents back and forth.

Additionally, Johnson noted a recent OMB report that found agencies are making significant progress in shortening processing times, as mandated by the 2004 intelligence reform law. He testified that for requests for initial security clearances for agencies served by OPM, the average time for investigations and adjudications started after Oct. 1, 2006, is 95 days -- 75 days for investigation and 20 days for adjudication.

But according to Derek Stewart, director for military and civilian personnel issues at the Government Accountability Office, the number of days included in agency reports does not reflect the initial application and submission phase.

Stewart noted that while the government has a goal for the application-submission phase to take 14 days or less, a September 2006 GAO report found the process took an average of 111 days. "Not fully accounting for all the time used in the process hinders congressional oversight to address the delays," he said.

But Johnson told lawmakers that GAO's numbers are based on an outdated report compiled at the beginning of the clearance reform phase, and that many of the necessary improvements have been made. Stewart noted that GAO needs to conduct a follow-up analysis as well as an audit of the technology programs used at DSS.

Meanwhile, Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates Thursday, warning him of a possible "devastating disruption" in the department's ability to get security clearances processed for contractors.

"Information essential to correcting chronic budget shortfalls and other deficiencies at the Defense Security Service has not been provided to Congress, as required," Davis wrote. "As a result, DSS continues to teeter on the brink of insolvency, dependent on inter-departmental transfers and annual reprogramming actions just to meet steady-state demand for clearances."

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