Lawmakers Want More Oversight of Security Clearances
After NSA leaks, senators call for reforms of background check process.
A bipartisan chorus of lawmakers criticized the federal government’s lack of standards and oversight of government-issued security clearances at a hearing held Thursday in light of Edward Snowden’s leak of sensitive information.
The hearing -- held jointly by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittees on the federal workforce and contracting oversight -- focused on a revolving fund used to conduct investigations and the range of approaches used for clearance investigations.
The Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Investigative Service uses the revolving account, rather than appropriated funds. Each agency pays into the fund when it requires a clearance investigation. OPM took over responsibilities for the investigations from the Defense Department in 2005.
The revolving fund has never been audited, however, OPM Inspector General Patrick McFarland told the panel. McFarland said that typically an audit on a fund within OPM will be paid for with money in that fund. Recently departed OPM Director John Berry refused to allow the IG to do this with the revolving fund -- which takes in about $1 billion annually.
“It’s outrageous it’s never been audited,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo, chairwoman of the contracting oversight subcommittee. “It ought to be as easy as brushing your teeth.”
Brenda Farrell, the Government Accountability Office’s defense capabilities and management director, said another major problem with security clearance investigations is the lack of governmentwide standard for what constitutes a proper review.
“Guidance does not exist,” Farrell said. “That is what I’m telling you.”
The George W. Bush administration created the Performance Accountability Council in 2008 to attempt to clarify what a proper investigation should look like, but “there’s still work to do,” Associate Director of the Federal Investigative Service Merton Miller conceded. GAO has estimated that 87 percent of investigations conducted for the Defense Department were incomplete.
Farrell added FIS has failed to adopt the vast majority of GAO’s recommendations.
The hearing was called after Edward Snowden -- a former employee at the National Security Agency and government contractor for Booz Allen Hamilton -- made public classified information.
USIS -- the largest contractor tasked with conducting background investigations on employees and contractors seeking security clearances -- conducted Snowden’s clearance investigation, and is currently under investigation by OPM’s IG.
“We do believe there may be some problems [with Snowden’s background check],” McFarland said.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the federal workforce subcommittee chairman, blamed the problems on the lack of standardization.
“Different responsibilities, different standards, different metrics different everything,” Tester said. “So this issue comes up with Snowden and we shouldn’t be surprised at all.”