Security Clearance Reforms Include Better Access to Criminal Records and Greater Use of Social Media

Aaron Alexis moves through the hallways of Building #197 at the Washington Navy Yard in September. Aaron Alexis moves through the hallways of Building #197 at the Washington Navy Yard in September. FBI/AP

This story has been updated.

Seven months after the fatal shootings at the Washington Navy Yard, an interagency panel on Tuesday issued 13 recommendations designed to close information gaps in the federal security clearance process.

The Suitability and Security Report documented a need for better information sharing, increased oversight over background investigations, and consistent application of standards and policies, the Office of Management and Budget said in a statement.

After a dozen Navy Yard employees were gunned down on Sept. 16, 2013, by Aaron Alexis, a federal contractor with a security clearance, questions were raised about the thoroughness of the work of Falls Church, Va.,-based contractor USIS, which had conducted his background check. Lawmakers introduced legislation to tighten oversight of contractors involved in the clearance process, and the Office of Personnel Management in February issued new rules requiring OPM to have final review of all new clearances.

The new recommendations include ensuring that investigators can access state and local criminal records; better exploitation of technology, such as social media, to implement continuous evaluation of governmentwide common standards and metrics; and enhanced oversight of contract investigators and federal adjudicators.

Because of the high-volume of applications and personal data, the report recommends a “risk-based” approach that “reduces the risk posed by the periodic reinvestigation backlog across government,” the report says. “For example, prioritizing periodic reinvestigation submissions by risk – based on both the nature of the position held by the individuals and the results of automated records checks -- can help identify individuals of potential concern.”

OMB noted that security clearance reform is among the cross-agency priority goals listed last week in President Obama’s fiscal 2015 budget.

“The administration's review of the suitability and security clearance programs addresses a number of concerns about the screening processes used to grant individuals access to trusted positions and federal facilities,” said OPM Director Katherine Archuleta. “The recommendations will strengthen the personnel vetting programs, building on existing reform efforts, and further ensure that we meet the highest standards of quality and integrity.”

Deputy Attorney General James Cole said, “It is critical that we work to close the information gap, making sure federal investigators have the information they need to keep federal employees and our nation’s information safe. We are committed to working with state and local entities to ensure that criminal records are available and accessible, a step that will make government background checks more complete.”

The review was built around assessments of governmentwide programs, practices and policies involving collection, sharing, processing and storage of information used to determine secure credentialing for suitability and personal security of federal employees as well as contractors.

Led by OMB, it was conducted jointly by OPM, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Justice, as well as the FBI, the National Archives and Records Administration's Information Security Oversight Office, and the National Security Council. “The review complements and builds upon DoD’s Navy Yard reviews also released today,” OMB said.

The Professional Services Council, a trade association for contractors, praised the recommendations from OMB and Defense as “common sense” and “consistent” with its own suggestions. “These reviews have appropriately focused on what information is to be reviewed and how to make greater use of a risk- and analytics-based approach,” said PSC President and CEO Stan Soloway in a statement.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who has introduced legislation to strengthen background checks, told Government Executive: “Too many folks have access to our nation’s most sensitive information. It’s why I introduced the Security Clearance Accountability, Reform, and Enhancement Act, which holds people accountable who intentionally compromise the integrity of a background investigation. I will remain vigilant in making sure Congress and the administration follow through with efforts to protect our nation’s secrets.”

The interagency Performance Accountability Council, chaired by OMB, will oversee implementation of the security clearance reforms, reporting regularly to the public on performance.gov.

Progress on the insider threat and security clearance cross-agency priority goal will be led by James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, Archuleta, and Michael Daniel, senior adviser to the president and coordinator for cybersecurity.

Frank Montoya, the national counterintelligence executive at ODNI, took a longer view. “In concert with stated recommendations and in close collaboration with our federal partners, we are leading the development of a governmentwide continuous evaluation program to address information gaps that exist in our current security clearance process,” he said. That continuous evaluation “will leverage technology to incorporate information available in government, commercial, and public databases.”

Clarification: While questions were raised about the background check done on Aaron Alexis, OPM in September 2013 released a statement saying it had reviewed the 2007 work of USIS and concluded that “the file was complete and in compliance with all investigative standards.”

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