OMB: Plan for implementing security-clearance fixes coming soon

Wednesday - 4/16/2014, 10:45am EDT

Beth Cobert, Deputy Director for Management, OMB

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In the coming months, the federal government will release a detailed plan for implementing more than a dozen recommendations to improve the security clearance process, the Obama administration's management chief told an audience of government contractors Tuesday.

"As an administration, we are committed to making progress in this area and implementing changes as soon as practical," said Beth Cobert, the Office of Management and Budget's deputy director for management, in a speech to the Professional Services Council.

The government's recommendations, which were included in an interagency report published by OMB last month, call for "continuous evaluation" of clearance-holders and strengthened oversight of the background-investigation process.

A hallmark of the plan is the development of common investigative standards across the government for both federal employees and contractors, Cobert said.

"National security is no less critical when the work is performed by contractors than when it is performed by federal employees and, frankly, the men and women who make up the contractor workforce are no less patriotic than their government counterparts," she said.

Of the total 5.1 million people who hold security clearances — either confidential, secret or top secret — more than 1 million are contractors.

Continuous evaluation 'not a simple thing to do'

Among the report's most ambitious recommendations is augmenting the current practice of reinvestigating clearance holders every few years with a system for continuously evaluating cleared employees.

The new system would regularly pull in automated data checks from a variety of sources, including credit checks, personnel files, even an employee's social media account to identify potential issues in near real-time.

But the new system will require the build-up of expensive, cross-agency IT systems.

The Defense Department is currently testing the concept in a series of pilot programs. But, "currently there is no governmentwide capability, plan or design" for rolling it out more broadly, OMB's report concluded.

Even so, the administration wants the intelligence community to launch an initial version of the new system for the most sensitive clearance holders by September. Implementation of the system for the entire population of cleared personnel won't happen until 2016.

"The concept is the right one," Cobert said. "The implementation needs to be done in a precise way. And we need to be able to do it at scale effectively. And that's not a simple thing to do."

Cobert: Clearances a top priority

In her role at OMB, Cobert oversaw the government's 120-day review of the clearance process ordered by President Barack Obama following the shooting at the Washington Navy Yard last September in which Navy IT contractor Aaron Alexis shot and killed 12 coworkers.

The Security and Suitability Performance Accountability Council, or PAC, which Cobert also chairs, is tasked with implementing the report's recommendations. The Office of Personnel Management and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence also sit on the council.

The PAC was instrumental in improving the timeliness of background investigations, helping to wipe out a backlog of hundreds of thousands of pending investigations and getting employees and contractors cleared and on the job faster. However, the White House report Cobert helped draft said the PAC had slacked off in recent years and that council needed "a more active posture to achieve and sustain successful reforms."

Cobert said security clearances and other elements of the President's second-term management agenda are at the top of her priority list at OMB.

"We have made clear commitments to the President and to the American people to deliver against those," she said. "I know that I, personally, as well as the other folks are being held accountable for those and, in my mind, there's no escaping those under any scenario."

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