Government lacks uniform security-clearance guidelines, official says

The federal government lacks clear guidelines for determining when to require security clearance for civilian workers, according to a watchdog report released Thursday at a Senate hearing.

The findings come two weeks after contractor Edward Snowden leaked information about the nation’s sweeping and controversial electronic-surveillance program.

National Intelligence Director James Clapper. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images).
National Intelligence Director James Clapper (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The watchdog report, from Congress’s Government Accountability Office, said National Intelligence Director James Clapper “had not provided agencies clearly defined policy and procedures to consistently determine whether a civilian position required a security clearance.”

During a Senate subcommittee hearing  Thursday, GAO official Brenda Farrell said the government has never developed uniform screening guidelines, despite decades of providing clearances. “You will find that individual agencies have developed their own rules and procedures,” she said.

Farrell noted that the national intelligence director’s office is in the process of creating procedures for all agencies to follow. “It is under draft,” she said.

In another high-profile case of unauthorized disclosure, U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning provided classified national-defense information in 2010 to the publishers of WikiLeaks.

About 1 million contractors and more than 3.5 million federal government employees, including military personnel, hold security clearances, according to figures from the intelligence director’s office.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), chairman of the subcommittee, said in his opening statement Thursday that administration officials need to do some “soul-searching” to determine how leaks could occur when the government spends tens of billions of dollars to protect the nation’s secrets.

“In terms of securing classified information, we don’t just have an external problem, we have an internal problem,” Tester said in a draft statement.

The Defense Department handled security clearances until 2005, when the Office of Personnel Management’s investigative services division assumed the responsibility. OPM has since made changes in an effort to decrease clearance-request backlogs and improve the quality of its reviews.

The GAO report criticizes the new procedures, saying that “efforts to improve the personnel security process have emphasized timeliness but not quality.” A 2009 GAO analysis found that most screenings for top-secret clearance in July 2008 lacked completed documentation, according to Thursday’s report from the watchdog group.

The national intelligence director concurred with GAO recommendations to issue clearer guidelines security clearance and to periodically review the designations for all executive-branch civilian positions, according to the report.

Below is the GAO analysis:

GAOHQ-_6351386-v1-Final_Statement_to_Hill__286-19-13_29

For more federal news, visit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page and Post Politics. To connect with Josh Hicks, follow his Twitter feed, friend his Facebook page or e-mail josh.hicks@washpost.comE-mail federalworker@washpost.com with news tips and other suggestions.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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Josh Hicks · June 20, 2013