Agencies are moving slowly to equip federal employees with new and more sophisticated identification cards, and most have not yet installed the technology needed to use the credentials' security features, witnesses told the House Oversight and Government Reform Management Subcommittee on Wednesday.
"We have to be careful, otherwise our eagerness to improve security can increase spending without improving security," said subcommittee Chairman Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y. "Agencies aren't gaining anything from the cards if employees just wave them at a security guard instead of feeding them through a reader."
A Government Accountability Office study of eight agencies concluded that none met the Office of Management and Budget's goal of issuing new ID cards to all employees and contractors who had worked with that agency for 15 years or less, and most of those surveyed were not using the cards' features. The report said OMB's management approach was to blame for the sluggish pace.
"OMB had not considered [Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12] implementation to be a major new investment and thus had not required agencies to prepare detailed plans regarding how, when and the extent to which they would implement the electronic authentication mechanisms available through the cards," the GAO study said.
"I think we'd have to say that there has been a marginal improvement in security," said Linda Koontz, GAO's director of information management systems. "What we have is a large outlay for expensive cards and we are not receiving associated and corresponding benefits to security."
Karen Evans, administrator for e-government and information technology at OMB, said the slow distribution of IDs is a function of the time it takes agencies to change their approach to security, rather than the result of a flawed management process. "What's really so important about HSPD-12 is building a common business practice so when [the Commerce Department] issues a business practice, [the Defense Department] has trust in it." She said individual agencies still were evaluating where it made sense to install card readers and to integrate enhanced security measures into their daily practices.
Both industry figures and government witnesses said the evaluation period could provide agencies and the private sector valuable time to figure out how to develop authentication hardware and integrate it into existing facilities.
"Perhaps we're going too fast," said Robert Zivney, vice president of marketing for Hirsch Electronics, who testified at the hearing on behalf of the Security Industry Association. "If we can involve more industry before specifications are released, if we can have longer comment periods, I think we can move faster by slowing down a little bit at this point."
Panel witnesses also debated the pace of the background investigations that agencies perform prior to hiring and issuing credentials. The Office of Personnel Management said it has eliminated the investigations backlog and greatly reduced the time it takes to conduct such background checks. But GAO suggested that there is disagreement over how long it should take to process cases and when to label a case as backlogged. OPM treats cases that are unresolved after 180 days as backlogged, while GAO has suggested a time frame of 90 days.
Brenda Farrell, director of defense capabilities and management at GAO, said analysts began an investigation in February to get better numbers about the extent of pending applications.
OPM defended its definition of backlog. "Are there investigations that take much longer? You bet," said Kathy Dillaman, OPM's associate director of investigations. "There are issues that should take much longer."
Towns expressed concern over reports that some agencies refused to accept other agencies' security clearances when employees wanted to transfer jobs.
"We think it may be because of the quality of the investigations," responded Farrell. "There are six phases of the clearance process, and there are not metrics for all six to determine the quality."
But Dillaman said there also was some confusion over the difference between clearances and suitability determinations, which can vary across agencies. "Drug use might not be a problem for one agency, and it might be very much a problem for another agency," for instance, she said.
Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif., said the key issue for both IDs and background checks should be finding an adaptable model for the procedures. "I think the point is maybe that one size doesn't fit all, but all the shoes should be built on the same model."