Agencies Promise Security Clearance Fixes Soon

Committee grills witnesses on security lapses that led to the Washington Navy Yard shooting in September. Committee grills witnesses on security lapses that led to the Washington Navy Yard shooting in September. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Senate oversight leaders called into question the government’s security clearance process at a hearing Thursday, saying a lack of coordination and thoroughness led to recent leaks and tragedies.

The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held the hearing in light of Edward Snowden’s mass leaks regarding the National Security Agency and the September Washington Navy Yard tragedy, when contractor Aaron Alexis shot and killed 12 people. A panel of witnesses from various federal agencies involved in issuing security clearances consistently spoke of efforts already under way to improve the process, but lawmakers continued to build pressure for dramatic changes.

“This is not a political issue,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., the committee’s ranking member. “It’s an issue of us failing to do our jobs.”

The senators repeatedly asked questions about how Alexis, who had a history of criminal and mental health issues, was able to receive a secret-level security clearance and access to the Washington Navy Yard. Lawmakers said they were “shocked” when Elaine Kaplan, acting director at the Office of Personnel Management, testified that as part of Alexis’ background check, the FBI found the Navy veteran had been arrested in Seattle, but investigators did not seek a police report on the incident.

Kaplan said Seattle police had previously told OPM they would not divulge their reports and instead referred investigators to an online database for the state of Washington, so in Alexis’ case, they simply went straight to the database. Because Alexis was never formally charged, OPM knew only that he was arrested for “malicious mischief” but was not aware that a firearm was involved, she said.

“We all missed something for sure,” Kaplan said, “but we did what was required.”

Joseph Jordan, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy at the Office of Management and Budget, said the security clearance process generally worked well, but added there is no room for error.

“We have 5 million people with clearances and the issues are very few,” Jordan said. “But any single point of failure has such monumental consequences that we have to make sure we don’t have a single one.”

Jordan discussed the interagency review initiated by President Obama after the Navy Yard shooting, saying he fully expects the group to meet its 120-day deadline and to issue recommendations in February. He added the review -- which involves OMB, OPM and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence -- will offer a forum to address many of the concerns the senators raised at the hearing.

Brian Prioletti, an assistant director at ODNI, said his office has been coordinating with other agencies for years to improve the security clearance process.

“Although these efforts are still a work in progress, when mature, they will eliminate many of these gaps and enhance the nation’s security posture,” Prioletti said. 

Many lawmakers at the hearing, however, have sought to take matters into their own hands by introducing a variety of bills to repair the security clearance process. Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Jon Tester, D-Mont., introduced a measure to increase oversight of security clearances by allowing OPM to tap into its revolving fund to audit the agency’s management, employees and contractors who conduct background checks.  That bill has already cleared the Senate as well as the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and is awaiting a vote by the full House.

The senators called for the additional oversight after it was revealed the contractor that conducted both the Snowden and Alexis investigations -- USIS -- was under federal investigation for pushing through incomplete background checks. The Justice Department announced on Wednesday it was joining a lawsuit originally filed by a whistleblower against USIS.

At the hearing, Kaplan said USIS allegedly failed to conduct its own quality reviews on itsinvestigations, which resulted in contract fraud. OPM, however, still conducted its own quality reviews on the background checks USIS submitted. OPM has taken several actions to boost its contractor oversight, Kaplan said, such as increasing staff and conducting more audits.

Another proposal to come out of the committee -- from Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.; and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. -- would require OPM to implement an automated review on every individual with a security clearance at least twice, at random times, every five years. The reviews would search public records and databases.

Brenda Farrell, testifying at the hearing on behalf of the Government Accountability Office, called on federal agencies and Congress to move beyond rhetoric and come up with a solution.

“Now is the time for actions, not just reviews,” Farrell said. 

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