DOD Personnel Clearances:

Additional OMB Actions Are Needed to Improve the Security Clearance Process

GAO-06-1070: Published: Sep 28, 2006. Publicly Released: Oct 30, 2006.

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The damage that unauthorized disclosure of classified information can cause to national security necessitates the prompt and careful consideration of who is granted a security clearance. However, long-standing delays and other problems with DOD's clearance program led GAO to designate it a high-risk area in January 2005. DOD transferred its investigations functions to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in February 2005. The Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) Deputy Director for Management is coordinating governmentwide efforts to improve the clearance process. Congress asked GAO to examine the clearance process for industry personnel. This report addresses the timeliness of the process and completeness of documentation used to determine the eligibility of industry personnel for top secret clearances. To assess timeliness, GAO examined 2,259 cases of personnel granted top secret eligibility in January and February 2006. For the completeness review, GAO compared documentation in 50 randomly sampled initial clearances against federal standards.

GAO's analysis of timeliness data showed that industry personnel contracted to work for the federal government waited more than one year on average to receive top secret clearances, longer than OPM-produced statistics would suggest. GAO's analysis of 2,259 cases in its population showed the process took an average of 446 days for initial clearances and 545 days for clearance updates. While OMB has a goal for the application-submission phase of the process to take 14 days or less, it took an average of 111 days. In addition, GAO's analyses showed that OPM used an average of 286 days to complete initial investigations for top secret clearances, well in excess of the 180-day goal specified in the plan that OMB and others developed for improving the clearance process. Finally, the average time for adjudication (determination of clearance eligibility) was 39 days, compared to the 30-day requirement that starts in December 2006. An inexperienced investigative workforce, not fully using technology, and other causes underlie these delays. Delays may increase costs for contracts and risks to national security. In addition, statistics from OPM, the agency with day-to-day responsibility for tracking investigations and adjudications, underrepresent the time used in the process. For example, the measurement of time does not start immediately upon the applicant's submission of a request for clearance. Not fully accounting for all the time used in the process hinders congressional oversight of the efforts to address the delays. OPM provided incomplete investigative reports to DOD, and DOD personnel who review the reports to determine a person's eligibility to hold a clearance (adjudicators) granted eligibility for industry personnel whose investigative reports contained unresolved issues, such as unexplained affluence and potential foreign influence. In its review of 50 investigative reports for initial clearances, GAO found that that almost all (47 of 50) cases were missing documentation required by federal investigative standards. At least half of the reports did not contain the required documentation in three investigative areas: residence, employment, or education. Moreover, federal standards indicate expansion of investigations may be necessary to resolve issues, but GAO found at least one unresolved issue in 27 of the reports. We also found that the DOD adjudicators granted top secret clearance eligibility for all 27 industry personnel whose investigative reports contained unresolved issues without requesting additional information or documenting that the information was missing in the adjudicative report. In its November 2005 assessment of the government plan for improving the clearance process, GAO raised concerns about the limited attention devoted to assessing quality in the clearance process, but the plan has not been revised to address the shortcomings GAO identified. The use of incomplete investigations and adjudications in granting top secret clearance eligibility increases the risk of unauthorized disclosure of classified information. Also, it could negatively affect efforts to promote reciprocity (an agency's acceptance of a clearance issued by another agency) being developed by an interagency working group headed by OMB's Deputy Director.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve the completeness of the documentation for the processes used to determine whether or not industry personnel are eligible for a top secret clearance and to decrease future concerns about the reciprocal acceptance of clearances issued by other agencies, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget should direct the Deputy Director for Management, in his oversight role of the governmentwide clearance process, to update the government strategic plan for improving the clearance process to address, among other things, the weaknesses that we identified in the November 2005 version of the plan as well as the timeliness and incompleteness issues identified in this report, and widely distribute it so that all stakeholders can work toward the goals that they can positively impact.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GAO recommended that the government update its strategic plan for improving the personnel security clearance process. To address GAO's recommendations and comply with the timeliness requirements established in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTPA), in February 2010 the Suitability and Security Clearance Performance Accountability Council (PAC) updated the governmentwide personnel security clearance process strategic plan by issuing the Strategic Framework. This updated strategic plan was submitted to Congress as required by the IRTPA. It specifically addressed planned improvements to the clearance process, including goals and strategies related to improving the completeness of documentation, improving timeliness, and enhancing reciprocity for clearance processes. Overall, this action meets the intent of our recommendation to improve the personnel security clearance process.

    Recommendation: To improve the completeness of the documentation for the processes used to determine whether or not industry personnel are eligible for a top secret clearance and to decrease future concerns about the reciprocal acceptance of clearances issued by other agencies, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget should direct the Deputy Director for Management, in his oversight role of the governmentwide clearance process, to require OPM and DOD to (1) submit to the Deputy Director their procedures for eliminating the deficiencies that we identified in their investigative and adjudicative documentation and (2) develop and report metrics on completeness and other measures of quality that will address the effectiveness of the new procedures.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GAO placed DOD's personnel security clearance program on its High Risk list in 2005 for issues related to timeliness, and continued that designation in 2007 and 2009 due to concerns about timelines and quality. With regard to quality, GAO was concerned specifically with the completeness of investigative products and documentation of adjudicative actions. GAO recommended that the government develop and report on performance measures to facilitate personnel security clearance process improvements that will enhance quality. The members of the Suitability and Security Clearance Performance Accountability Council (PAC) worked directly with GAO to issue a joint letter on May 31, 2010 to the Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia, Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. This letter outlines current and future metrics related to measuring the quality and performance of personnel security clearance processes. For example, OPM has begun measuring the completeness of investigative reports provided by OPM using a Quality Assessment Tool and a quality hotline for adjudicators and DOD will begin to generate reports on the completeness of OPM investigative reports through their Rapid Assessment of Incomplete Security Investigations (RAISE) tool. In addition, DOD is measuring the completeness of adjudications based on adherence to DOD adjudication documentation standards, including identification and documentation of disqualifying/mitigating information, or missing investigative information. The PAC will collect and review these various reports to monitor progress and provide oversight to agencies. This emphasis on a suite of inter-related quality metrics meets the intent of our recommendation to improve the completeness of clearance processes documentation.

    Recommendation: To improve the timeliness of the processes used to determine whether or not industry personnel are eligible for a top secret clearance, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget should direct the Deputy Director for Management, in his oversight role of the governmentwide clearance process, to establish an interagency working group to identify and implement solutions for investigative and adjudicative information technology problems--such as some parts of DOD continuing to submit paper copies of the clearance application, or inefficiencies--such as the continued distribution of paper investigative reports--that have resulted in clearance delays.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GAO recommended that the government establish an interagency working group to identify and implement reforms to the personnel security clearance process. On June 18, 2007, through a Memorandum of Agreement, the Director of National Intelligence established the Security Clearance Process Reform Team - otherwise known as the Joint Reform Team (JRT)-which consists of cognizant entities within the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), and the Under Secretary of Defense (Intelligence). The terms of reference for the initiative said that the team will develop a reformed Intelligence Community/Department of Defense security clearance process. This interagency working group will execute joint reform efforts to achieve the timeliness goals established by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTPA) and improve the processes related to granting security clearances and determining suitability for government employment. In March 2009, the JRT issued a report called the Enterprise Information Technology Strategy to identify and implement solutions for investigative and adjudicative information technology problems and to support future reform efforts. Overall, these actions meet the intent of our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve the timeliness of the processes used to determine whether or not industry personnel are eligible for a top secret clearance, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget should direct the Deputy Director for Management, in his oversight role of the governmentwide clearance process, to direct OPM and DOD to fully measure and report all of the time that transpires between when the application is initially received by the federal government to when the clearance-eligibility determination has been provided to the customer. Inherent in this recommendation to increase transparency is the need to provide all stakeholders (including facility security officers, federal and contract investigators, and adjudicators) information about each of their steps within the clearances phases so that each can develop goals and implement actions to minimize delays.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GAO recommended that the federal government more fully measure and report on personnel security clearance processes in order to improve timeliness. Based on GAO's recommendation, and to comply with the timeliness requirements established by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTPA), the Suitability and Security Clearance Performance Accountability Council (PAC) implemented processes to track agency timeliness of personnel security clearance cases from the initiation phase through the investigation and adjudication phases to more fully measure and report all of the time involved with the personnel security clearance process. This end-to-end timeliness metric was reported in the PAC's 2010 annual report to Congress - the Strategic Framework 2010 - as required by IRTPA. The report included end-to-end timeliness by agency by quarter, starting from the second quarter of fiscal year 2009 through the first quarter of fiscal year 2010. Based on discussions with members of the PAC, we found that the PAC decided not to track or report on the process time from when the adjudicative decision is made to the final notification of the subject, citing issues related to due process and to variations in agency processes. This timeliness data has increased the transparency of agency processes and has contributed to increased agency accountability and PAC oversight effectiveness. Overall, these actions meet the intent of our recommendation to improve the timeliness of the personnel security clearance processes by more fully measuring and reporting on the end-to-end process.

    Recommendation: To improve the completeness of the documentation for the processes used to determine whether or not industry personnel are eligible for a top secret clearance and to decrease future concerns about the reciprocal acceptance of clearances issued by other agencies, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget should direct the Deputy Director for Management, in his oversight role of the governmentwide clearance process, to issue guidance that clarifies when, if ever, adjudicators may use incomplete investigative reports--closed pending and inadvertently incomplete cases--as the basis for granting clearance eligibility.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to GAO's recommendation to issue guidance that clarifies when adjudicators may use incomplete investigative reports, the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence issued guidance on March 12, 2010. DOD accounts for approximately 90 percent of annual personnel security clearance applications for the federal government. This action meets the intent of our recommendation to improve the completeness of the documentation and to decrease future concerns about the reciprocal acceptance of clearances issued by other agencies.

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