Executive agencies are getting worse at processing background investigations in a timely manner, despite reform efforts, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report.
In 2012, 59 percent of executive branch agencies reviewed by GAO reported meeting timeliness objectives for top secret clearances, according to the report. In 2016 that number fell to 10 percent.
The executive branch was previously required to submit the timeliness of their clearance investigations to Congress in an annual report under the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, according to the report, but that requirement expired in 2011.
Additionally, though executive agencies have made improvements in the security clearance investigation process through issuing guidance and updating strategic documents, they struggle with continuous evaluation and reciprocity programs called for in the 2012 Federal Investigative Standards criteria. The director of national intelligence and the Security, Suitability, and Credentialing Performance Accountability Council (PAC) have also failed to set milestones for the completion of governmentwide performance measures.
“While the PAC has reformed many parts of the personnel security clearance process, implementing certain key aspects of the 2012 Federal Investigative Standards, including changing the frequency of periodic reinvestigations for certain clearance holders and establishing a continuous evaluation program, remain incomplete. In addition, the issuance of ODNI’s draft reciprocity policy has been delayed,” the GAO report said.
The report also found that while the Office of Management and Budget’s National Background Investigation Bureau, established in 2016, has made progress in improving the investigation process, the NBIB has struggled with standing up the requisite personnel and addressing the operational challenges of addressing a backlog of clearances which has grown from 190,000 cases in August 2014 to more than 709,000 in September 2017.
NBIB officials have testified before Congress that since OPM had to terminate work with a contractor that accounted for approximately 60 percent of the investigation work in 2014, it has been difficult to get back up to past efficiency.
The report recommended that Congress reinstate the IRTPA requirement that the executive branch report annually on the timeliness of its background investigations. In addition, GAO recommended that the DNI and PAC set missing milestones for performance measures and that NBIB develop plans for reducing their backlog and increasing their investigator capacity. The NBIB concurred with the recommendations made to it, though the DNI did not.
“In its written comments, ODNI stated that the report appears to draw negative inferences from the facts and that the conclusions do not present an accurate assessment of the current status of the personnel security clearance process. ODNI also stated that the conclusions do not include the significant progress ODNI has achieved in coordination with executive branch agencies,” the report said. “In its comments, ODNI further stated that while it generally concurred with the factual observations in the report, it did not concur with our recommendations.”
GAO, however, said that they continue to believe that their recommendations are valid.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.