OPM calls for changes in federal background checks

Federal background checkers need greater access to state and local police reports and an overhaul of screening policies to prevent people such as Washington Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis from getting security clearances, according to a report from the Office of Personnel Management.

The review, released Tuesday, also called for a reduction in the number of workers the federal government clears for special access and more frequent follow-up investigations of clearance holders, among other proposals. 


(Saul Loeb/AFP-Getty)

The report echoed recommendations from two Pentagon analyses issued the same day that said the government missed opportunities to restrict Alexis’s access to military installations. The Defense Department has not disciplined or fired anyone as a result of the that case, according to officials.

The OPM review found that screeners are not always able to access state and local criminal records that could raise red flags about prospective clearance holders. The report said changes in law and perhaps more federal funding to help agencies update records systems may be necessary to improve access to information.

OPM also determined that an explosion in the number of workers who are eligible for clearances since the 9/11 attacks has increased the risks and costs associated with the authorizations. About 5.1 million federal employees and contractors were eligible as of October.

President Obama last year appointed a special council to review the federal security-clearance program in response to the Navy Yard shooting. The panel, known as the Security Clearance Performance Accountability Council, will be in charge of ensuring that the new recommended changes take effect. The group is led by OPM Director Katherine Archuleta, national intelligence chief James Clapper and representatives from departments such as Defense, Homeland Security and Justice.

OPM oversees U.S. government background checks, but much of the work is done by contractors. Only federal employees make the final decision about whether to grant clearances. OPM’s report described the use of contracted screeners as “an appropriate practice and consistent with regulations, provided the necessary oversight, metrics and controls are in place.” But the review found that the government lacks consistent standards for measuring the quality of its background checks.

The Justice Department has alleged in a lawsuit that the government-services firm USIS, which screened Alexis and National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, submitted more than 600,000 incomplete background checks. The company was allowed to perform its own quality reviews in many cases.

The Justice complaint did not mention Snowden or Alexis.

OPM announced a new policy last month that prohibits contractors from auditing the quality of their background checks, saying the reviews would be “fully federalized” by Feb. 24.

Follow Josh Hicks on TwitterFacebook or Google+. Connect by e-mail at  josh.hicks@washpost.comVisit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page and Post Politics for more federal news. E-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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