Congress focusing on significant changes to federal security-clearance process

Joe Davidson
Columnist February 16

The outbreak of comity in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, often a sharply partisan place, means the government’s security-clearance process is in for significant changes.

Democrats and Republicans on the committee are united by an urgency to fix a system that was not able to stop Aaron Alexis’s September rampage. He was a defense contractor with a security clearance who attacked his Washington Navy Yard workplace, killing 12 before being shot to death by police.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

What the committee members and their colleagues in Congress decide could have major impact on the nearly 5 million employees and contractors who are eligible for security clearances.

Areas of agreement, in principle if not detail, include the continuous monitoring of security-clearance holders through databases, securing better cooperation from local law enforcement and greater use of social media in background investigations.

The bipartisan desire to fix the system, however, does not extend to all remedies or even diagnoses. Republicans object to taking security-clearance checks from private contractors, who now do 70 percent of that work, and returning it to federal investigators. They also tend to focus their criticisms on government rather than private contractors, including a big one facing serious Justice Department allegations for ailments in the system.

No matter who does investigations, Republicans and Democrats think employees should be checked more often.

Cleared individuals now go years, perhaps too many, without a security reevaluation. Those with “secret” clearance, like Alexis, are reinvestigated every 10 years. It’s five years for “top secret” holders.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said she can’t understand how Alexis could have “a security clearance that enabled him to go through 10 years without review.”

“Even the most stable person has incidents in his life . . . that in a decade” could affect his ability to handle Uncle Sam’s secrets, she said.

“Where did the 10-year period come from?” she asked witnesses during a committee hearing last week. Office of Personnel Management Director Katherine Archuleta, OPM Inspector General Patrick McFarland and Stephen Lewis, a deputy director in the Defense Department, had no answer. OPM oversees the background-check program. Lewis said the 10-year reevaluation will move “to a five-year recurring review, and we do believe that continuous evaluation, ongoing reviews of available records, should occur as well.”

Republicans praised Norton’s “excellent line of questioning.”

Discussion related to legislation introduced by Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.) was also an example of cross-aisle cooperation. Lynch proposes withholding federal funds from local police agencies that do not fully cooperate with federal background investigators. The Republican chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (Calif.), said “the committee has been working on a completely bipartisan basis” toward legislation that includes some of Lynch’s provisions.

Bipartisanship has its limits.

Democrats want government employees to do a greater share of the background checks.

Because of allegations of corruption in security clearance contracting, “it is imperative that we bring key background investigative work back into the federal government,” Lynch said. “My legislation will ensure that federal employees, rather than outside contractors, perform critical investigative functions, including top secret clearance level investigations.”

A Democratic staff report issued by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D- Md.) said, “Congress also should reconsider the extent to which outsourcing critical investigative functions may impact national security.”

Having federal law enforcement personnel do all the checks could improve the cooperation needed from local police officials.

As a report issued by Issa notes, more than 450 local law enforcement agencies do not cooperate fully with security clearance investigators.

“Unfortunately, some of the country’s largest local law enforcement agencies . . . are on that list,” says the Republican staff report. “The Newark Police Department is on the list, with a note that says, ‘Will not fulfill any requests other than for law enforcement agencies.’ ” Newark police did not respond to a request for comment.

A D.C. police spokeswoman told my colleague Ernesto Londoño that city law prohibits police from sharing law enforcement information with civilians. At the hearing, however, Archuleta said D.C. police recently agreed to provide information to investigators.

The lack of cooperation cited in Issa’s report does not convince him that federal employees should do all the checks.

“I want to be a little careful not to rush to bring everything in-house,” Issa said, “when in fact, we’re not very good in the federal government at increasing or reducing workloads” as easily as private companies can.

But the reputation of private companies has been damaged. Cummings’s report focused on USIS (U.S. Investigations Services), a Falls Church firm facing Justice Department allegations that it failed to do required quality-control reviews. USIS does about half of the government’s background probes, including the one on Alexis. About 40 percent of its work over a period of more than four years is in question.

As part of OPM’s reform efforts, Archuleta announced this month that private companies will no longer do their own quality-control reviews.

Noting that he was not employed by USIS during the period under scrutiny, Sterling Phillips, the firm’s chief executive since January 2013, tried to minimize the allegations, saying they “relate to a small group of individuals over a specific time period and are inconsistent with our values and strong record of customer service.”

But it’s a big deal to the Justice Department and to Congress.

Justice is “seeking more than $1 billion from USIS, claiming that the company charged taxpayers for work it never performed on — ladies and gentlemen, listen to this, on 665,000 background investigations from 2008 to 2012,” Cummings told the hearing.

“We are better than that.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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