In its detached, bland, yet on-point way, the Government Accountability Office is letting folks know there are real problems with the government’s security clearance process.
Time and again in testimony to a House subcommittee Wednesday, Brenda S. Farrell, a GAO director, emphasized the need for better quality control in a government where almost 5 million people, including contractors, have security clearances.
Here’s what her report says:
●“Executive branch agencies do not consistently assess quality throughout the security clearance process.”
●● Agencies “have not fully developed and implemented” measures of “quality in key aspects of the personnel security clearance process.”
●●Agencies “do not have reasonable assurance that security clearance position designations are correct, which could compromise national security.”
●“A high-quality process is essential in order to minimize the risks of unauthorized disclosures of classified information.”
Citing Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, leakers of classified information, and Aaron Alexis, the Washington Navy Yard contractor who gunned down 12 people before being shot dead by police, Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security counterterrorism and intelligence subcommittee, called for “reforms and rigorous oversight of the security clearance process. . . . It is vital that more is done to identify insider threats.”
The problem, however, might not just be one of quality, but also one of quantity.
The hearing didn’t focus on how much Uncle Sam makes secret and how many people it takes to keep those secrets. But when looking at ways to fix the security clearance process, it’s worth examining why there are so many secrets in the first place.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) did that during a Senate hearing two weeks ago.
“Two problems,” he said at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing. “There’s way too much stuff that’s classified that . . . doesn’t need to be classified. And, number two, there’s way too many security clearances approved. So if you markedly increase the amount of material that doesn’t need to be classified, you have to increase the number of people that need to have access to it. So we need to address both problems.”
The issue of too many secrets hasn’t received as much attention as the lapses in security, but there was some indication Wednesday that members of Congress are concerned about the growing number of people with security clearances.
“These vast numbers grow year by year,” said Rep. Brian Higgins (N.Y.), the top Democrat on the subcommittee. The 4.9 million clearances across the government include, he said, 124,000 employees in the Department of Homeland Security.
A statement from Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), the ranking Democrat on the full committee, said that 10 years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, “the sheer volume of Americans holding security clearances was astonishing.”
He linked quality-control deficiencies to the explosion in positions requiring clearances.
“The lack of clear criteria and commonly accepted standards may contribute to the exponential growth in federal jobs requiring a security clearance,” Thompson said. “GAO also found that security clearance requirements for federal jobs that do not involve handling national security information may hinder transparency and openness in government.”
On Thursday, a different House Homeland Security subcommittee will focus on a specific group of federal employees with security clearances: Transportation Security Administration airport behavior detection officers, known as BDOs. Thursday’s hearing, however, will not focus on their clearances, but on their effectiveness.
BDOs use a “Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques” (SPOT) program to identify airline passengers who seem suspicious and might pose a risk to air travel.
But another GAO report that will be discussed at that hearing said “available evidence does not support whether behavioral indicators . . . can be used to identify persons who may pose a risk to aviation security.”
GAO added this: “Until TSA can provide scientifically validated evidence . . . the agency risks funding activities that have not been determined to be effective.”
TSA Administrator John Pistole is scheduled to testify at the transportation security subcommittee hearing, and he’ll defend the program. Statements released by the agency Wednesday said “behavior detection is vital to TSA’s layered approach to deter, detect and disrupt individuals who pose a threat to aviation. . . . Looking for suspicious behavior is a common sense approach” and is supported by research.
But the report gives ammunition to members of Congress who want to eliminate a government program. Usually, those members are Republicans. This time it is Democrats leading the charge.
The SPOT program, Thompson said, “is fundamentally flawed, cannot be proven effective, and should no longer be funded with taxpayer dollars.”
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.