Rep. Mark Meadows, R-S.C.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-S.C. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Lawmakers Want Answers on 'Unacceptable' Security Clearance Backlog

OPM and Defense Department argue over which is better able to oversee the clearance process.

Lawmakers pitted agency officials against each other on Wednesday in an effective debate to see which government organization is better equipped to oversee the security clearance process for federal employees.

The responsibility for conducting investigations currently falls on the newly formed National Background Investigations Bureau, a subagency within the Office of Personnel Management, but the Defense Department submitted a plan to Congress in August for taking over the process for its own employees, which make up a majority of the total checks. Some say the Defense plan will help reduce a backlog of more than 700,000 people awaiting investigations, but others say it would worsen the problem by spreading already limited resources too thin.

“There is nothing more important than getting this right, and getting it right quicker than what we’re doing right now,” said Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C., at a House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations hearing. “The backlog is quite frankly unacceptable.”

Officials from Defense and NBIB explained each of their agencies’ advantage over the other in conducting the investigations.

The backlog skyrocketed in 2014 after OPM terminated its contract with USIS, which handled roughly 60 percent of the government’s background checks. As applications piled up and clearance guidelines grew tighter, NBIB was formed to oversee personnel investigations. Though the agency is only about a year old, it can already handle the same amount of investigations as OPM could in 2014, said NBIB Director Charles Phalen.

Though the group has already made moderate progress in reducing the backlog from its peak this summer, there are still about 704,000 clearance applications pending, Phalen said. He estimated that by increasing the number of investigators and implementing continuous evaluation, the backlog could shrink to a manageable size in three to five years.

But Defense Department Director of Defense Intelligence Garry Reid said the Pentagon could take on much of that workload and already has much of the infrastructure in place to do so. The department has a continuous evaluation system in place to monitor millions of personnel, and could work with NBIB over the next three years to enhance and automate background checks, Reid said.

However, Meadows questioned this logic, worrying that diverting NBIB’s resources to help implement a clearance process for Defense could make the problem worse.

“Moving something from one bucket of the government to another bucket of the government does not necessarily create more efficiency,” he said. “We’re going to end up with duplicative services.”

Meadows asked Phalen and Reid to submit critiques of the Defense plan within the next 30 days to be considered alongside its potential benefits.

Subcommittee members also berated Reid and his agency for failing to submit documents pertaining to an inquiry by top House Oversight Democrat Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., into federal employees working on interim security clearances. Cummings requested information on people whose clearances had been revoked after Defense Security Services Director Daniel Payne said “murderers,” “rapists” and “pedophiles” were working under the temporary permits.

Reid assured the committee the documents would be submitted by Friday.