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Improvements in security clearance process earn praise

Jun. 20, 2012 - 05:52PM   |  
By STEPHEN LOSEY   |   Comments
Comptroller General Gene Dodaro speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill.
Comptroller General Gene Dodaro speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

The federal government has made impressive progress in speeding up the security clearance process, but it can’t let up the pressure to keep improving, the Government Accountability Office will testify Thursday.

“Leadership in Congress and the executive branch demonstrated commitment to reforming the security clearance process to address longstanding problems,” Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, who heads GAO, will tell the Senate Homeland Security and Government Reform subcommittee on the federal workforce, according to advance testimony provided to Federal Times. “It is important to sustain the momentum of the reform.”

The government had been plagued for years by a sluggish pace of background checks, which left hundreds of thousands of federal employees, military service members and contractors waiting for months for their clearances. In fiscal 2005 — shortly after Congress passed the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which ordered the government to fix the security clearance process — the government took 145 days on average to conduct the average initial security clearance investigation. By the end of fiscal 2010, that number was down to 39 days — one day less than the law required.

The government today has cut that time even further, to 36 days, Merton Miller, associate director of the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Investigative Services, is expected to testify. That represents a 75 percent improvement since 2005.

“Today, OPM’s background investigation program’s performance is strong,” Miller’s prepared testimony says. “We have no backlogs, are meeting timeliness mandates, and have increased automation.”

GAO removed the Defense Department’s security clearance process from its high-risk list in 2011.

Other improvements, according to Miller:

• Agencies are sharing security clearance and suitability information with one another — a process known as reciprocity. An increase in reciprocity means agencies don’t have to waste time reviewing background investigations for employees who have already been granted clearances by other agencies.

• More than 99 percent of all security investigation requests are sent to OPM via the online e-QIP application system.

Dodaro is concerned that some agencies are building duplicative electronic case management and adjudication systems that could unnecessarily cost the government money. For example, Defense has created a Case Adjudication Tracking System, that Dodaro says “could easily be deployed to other agencies at a low cost.” But five other agencies are also working on similar systems — including the National Reconnaissance Office, which is part of Defense.

Information technology investments are one of the most expensive parts of OPM’s background check program, according to Dodaro. They increased from about $12 million in fiscal 2005 to more than $91 million in fiscal 2011.

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