Congress Pushes Forward on Security Clearance Reform Bill

By Eric Katz

January 16, 2014

The House has approved a Senate measure to bolster oversight of the security clearance process, providing funding for inspector general auditing of the investigations.

The Security Clearance Oversight and Reform Enhancement -- or SCORE -- Act enables the Office of Personnel Management to use its revolving fund -- an account the agencies that require background checks pay into -- to audit the investigations and investigators.

A bipartisan group of senators drafted the legislation after a hearing to investigate the security clearance process in light of Edward Snowden’s massive leak of National Security Agency documents revealed OPM’s revolving fund had no audit authority.

That version of the bill went significantly further to reform the process than the current bill, which, for procedural reasons, will have to clear the Senate one more time before heading to Obama’s desk. Originally, it called for the Director of National Intelligence to issue guidance for all federal agencies to determine which positions require security clearances. It also required the firing or suspension of background check investigators and contractors who falsified or filed incomplete reports. Those provisions, however, were stripped from the bill before it passed the Senate in October and the House earlier this week.

Still, the bill’s authors called the measure a step in the right direction toward fixing the gaps in the security clearance process.

“It’s nothing short of a national security threat that these background checks aren’t being conducted with the care needed,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., one of the bill’s sponsors. “The ability to conduct a basic audit is a good first step toward reforming the security clearance process, and making sure that we can trust those with access to our country’s secrets and secure facilities.”

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., a co-author on the bill, said the law will help protect government workers from future attacks, like the shooting at the Washington Navy Yard by government contractor Aaron Alexis that left 13 dead.

“Due to the NSA scandal and the terrible tragedy at the Washington Navy Yard, we know that our nation’s background check process badly needs reform -- and now Congress has acted,” Tester said. “This bipartisan bill will increase oversight and empower watchdogs to make our nation safer and our government more efficient.”

The White House is conducting its own review, in coordination with OPM, ODNI and the Office of Management and Budget, into the security clearance process, and is expected to issue its report in February. The Government Accountability Office has estimated 87 percent of investigations conducted for the Defense Department in a sample of 3,500 were incomplete.  

McCaskill and Tester, as well as the bill’s Republican co-sponsors, Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Ron Johnson, R-Wis., also wrote a letter to GAO asking the auditors to recommend how agencies can better streamline security clearance investigations. 

By Eric Katz

January 16, 2014