In 2017 the Government Accountability Office considered 34 federal programs and activities to be glaring targets for abuse. In 2018 there’s another big cause for concern.

Due to the widespread negative impact of slow, vulnerable screening methods, the GAO recently placed the governmentwide personnel security clearance process on its High Risk List, which includes areas in need of either broad-based transformation or specific reforms to prevent waste, fraud and mismanagement.

GAO is scheduled to officially update the High Risk List in early 2019; however, U.S. Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro determined that calling attention to the risks associated with security clearance breaches and backlog was needed now, according to the press release.

“A high-quality and timely personnel security clearance process is essential to minimize the risks of unauthorized disclosures of classified information and to help ensure that information about individuals with criminal histories or other questionable behavior is identified and assessed,” Dodaro said.

“Our objective for the High Risk List is to bring attention to policymakers of the need for action sooner, rather than later. Renewed and strong top leadership commitment will be critical to facilitate progress in reducing the backlog and completing key improvements to the personnel security clearance process.”

GAO designated the security clearance processing high-risk for six reasons:

  1. A significant backlog of investigations;
  2. A lack of long-term goals to address investigation capacity;
  3. Delays in processing security clearances;
  4. A need or identified milestones and governmentwide performance measures;
  5. Delays in completing key reform initiatives; and,
  6. Department of Defense concerns about the development of a new IT system for the clearance process and its ties to Office of Personnel Management legacy systems.

According to the press release on the decision, “executive branch agencies are unable to investigate and process personnel security clearances in a timely manner, contributing to a significant backlog of background investigations, totaling more than 700,000 cases as of September 2017. Despite the Security, Suitability and Credentialing Performance Accountability Council making progress in reforming personnel security clearance processes, the government faces challenges in reversing this trend,

“Additionally, governmentwide measures for the quality of background investigations have not yet been established, and there have been significant delays in completing some key reform efforts.”

This is not the first time security clearance backlogs have been on the High Risk List. In 2005, the Department of Defense’s personnel security clearance system was added to the list due to timeliness issues. OPM’s background investigations and DoD’s adjudications joined the list in 2007 for quality issues. These problems were removed from the list in 2011.

OPM has previously testified before Congress that the termination of work with a contractor that accounted for 60 percent of the security clearance work in 2014 contributed significantly to its backlog.

The National Background Investigation Bureau was established in 2016 to run the background investigation process, but struggled to stand up requisite personnel. The National Defense Authorization Act of 2018 has since moved defense-specific background investigations back into DoD hands.

“Continued and coordinated focus on the challenges GAO has identified, and the personnel security clearance process generally, will be necessary to facilitate the transfer of background investigations from OPM to DoD. Additionally, policymaker and stakeholder attention will also be essential to help ensure the smooth and timely processing of personnel security clearances governmentwide,” the GAO press release said.

According to the press release, Dorado will soon be sending a letter to OPM, Intelligence and Office of Management and Budget leadership alerting them to the concerns behind GAO’s decision to place security clearances on the High Risk List.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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