Congress eyeing legislative fix for security clearances

Thursday - 2/13/2014, 4:14pm EST

A new act signed into law by President Barack Obama this week aims to inject an extra shot of oversight into the Office of Personnel Management's troubled security clearance process.

The OPM IG Act provides the agency's top watchdog with an additional source of funding to conduct audits and investigations.

Inspector General Patrick McFarland told Congress last summer there is "alarmingly insufficient oversight" of the security-clearance process largely because of budget shortfalls in his office.

OPM charges individual agencies to perform background checks — the first step in obtaining a security clearance — for employees and contractors. The funding that OPM receives to conduct the investigations then funnels into its revolving fund, which the IG is currently barred from using to finance investigations and audits.

The new law allows the IG to access revolving-fund money to finance its investigations.

The House last month unanimously approved the measure, which was introduced by Reps. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) and Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.). The Senate gave final passage to a nearly identical measure — the Security Clearance Oversight and Reform Enhancement (SCORE) Act — late last month.

Security clearances under microscope

The federal government's management of the security clearance process came under scrutiny last year when it was revealed the same company, Fall Church, Va.-based USIS — the government's largest provider of background investigations — performed investigations of both National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden and Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis.

The Justice Department later joined a whistleblower lawsuit against the company accusing the company of signing off on thousands of investigations that had never been properly completed — a practice known as "flushing" or "dumping" records. All told, DoJ accuses the company of falsifying some 665,000 records. However, DoJ's complaint is not related to the investigation of either Snowden or Alexis.

"We've seen the dangers of folks playing fast and loose with the security clearance process," said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who introduced the Senate bill, in a statement. "When companies put profit ahead of national security, Americans' safety is threatened. This law will empower watchdogs to take action to make our nation more secure and our government more efficient. It's a common-sense law that saves taxpayer dollars and makes Americans safer."

House committee considering broader changes

Meanwhile, legislators have set their eyes on broader legislative fixes.

Stephen Lynch, who co-sponsored the House IG bill, introduced legislation this week aiming to take a multi-pronged take on overhauling the security-clearance process.

The 2014 Security Clearance Reform Act would do away with periodic reinvestigations of clearance holders and require the federal government to continuously monitor employees and contractors who hold clearances.

Currently, employees with top-secret clearances are reinvestigated only after five years and those with secret-level clearances only after 10 years.

The Navy, for example, granted Alexis a secret-level clearance in 2007, which he was able to maintain in subsequent years, even as his behavior — firing his gun into the ceiling of his apartment into the apartment above him and complaints of hearing voices — grew increasingly erratic.

Lynch's bill would also block OPM contractors from holding contracts to both conduct investigative fieldwork and to conduct final quality reviews on those same investigations.

USIS held a $288 million contract with OPM to perform quality reviews of background investigations even though, under a separate multibillion contract with the agency, USIS was also responsible for conducting many of those same investigations in the first place.

OPM Director Katherine Archuleta announced last week that beginning later this month only federal employees — not contractors — would perform the final level of quality reviews.

Finally, the Lynch bill would withhold federal funding from local police jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate with background investigators' requests to supply police arrest records.

A report issued this week by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the oversight committee chairman, revealed that local police departments' unwillingness to share information has become a major hurdle in the investigation process.

In fact, OPM maintains a list of of 450 jurisdictions nationwide that don't cooperate with investigators, including Los Angeles, New York City and many other large U.S. cities, according to Issa's report.

Without the aid of local police records, investigators are often left piecing together incomplete data from other databases.

At a House Oversight hearing Tuesday, Issa signaled his support for broad reform of the security clearance process by, among other things, withholding federal funding from uncooperative jurisdictions.

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