Report says lack of review over security clearances can lead to too many clearances

Joe Davidson
Columnist November 19, 2013

Federal officials understand the need to limit the number of security clearances they issue, but without regular reviews they can’t be sure they are doing that, according to a report a Senate panel is to release Wednesday.

That can contribute to the growth — and perhaps too much growth — in the number of federal employee and contractor positions with security clearances. The number is so high, almost 5 million, because Uncle Sam has so many secrets — too many secrets, say some in Congress.

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

To compound things, federal employee representatives complain that agencies can designate routine jobs as sensitive, leaving workers in those slots with weaker job protections.

These are some of the issues the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on the federal workforce will explore at a hearing that will review the Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. Congressional interest in security classifications rose after a cleared Defense Department contractor, Aaron Alexis, shot up the Washington Navy Yard in September, killing 12 people. Earlier this year, another cleared contractor, Edward Snowden, released a trove of National Security Agency secrets, enraging the intelligence community.

Alexis and Snowden were among the 4.9 million federal employees and contractors eligible to hold security clearances in 2012. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the ranking minority members of the full Senate and House homeland security committees, have attributed problems with security clearances in part to the large number of positions that are classified.

“Today, there are nearly 5 million individuals with a security clearance. Five million,” said Senate subcommittee Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.). “And there are no indications that number will decrease any time soon. But it only takes one individual to slip through the cracks.”

Shawn Turner, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), said Director James R. Clapper recently told agencies to “examine their requirements for clearances, with the objective of identifying areas where they can reduce the numbers.” Clapper also wants agencies “to take a look at the amount of information we classify to make sure that we are not classifying for the sake of classifying.”

While the GAO report said a regulation proposed by ODNI and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) would require agencies to reevaluate security designations once within 24 months after the rule takes effect, “it does not require a periodic reassessment” of the need for positions to have access to classified information.

Because reviews are not done regularly, GAO said “executive branch agencies cannot have assurances that they are keeping the number of positions that require security clearances to a minimum.”

Tester cited the concerns of employee representatives who worry that the proposed regulation, along with a recent federal appeals court decision, could allow the government to classify too many positions as sensitive. That would strip them of certain employee rights.

David A. Borer, general counsel of the American Federation of Government Employees, said the court’s decision in the case of Kaplan v. Conyers removed the ability of employees in positions designated as “national security sensitive” to take cases to the Merit Systems Protection Board, which protects the rights of federal workers. At the same time, his statement to the subcommittee said, “as the proposed regulations have been written, it is difficult to think of any position that an agency could not designate as a sensitive, national security position.”

Tester said he and Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), the top Republican on the subcommittee, have urged ODNI and OPM to postpone the regulation until a number of questions, including the “number of impacted federal workers, are answered.”

Tester and Portman also led a hearing Tuesday that looked at how effectively government oversight works. Independent overseers include agency inspectors general and the Office of Special Counsel.

“I can tell you, folks back in Big Sandy, Montana, are skeptical about the way things work in Washington,” Tester said in his opening statement. “And I hear about it every time I swing through town or take my wheat to the grain elevator.”

He told the officials who provide independent oversight of government agencies that he wanted to know when “impediments prevent you from effectively performing your roles of oversight — whether it is a lack of authority or resources.”

Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner, whose office protects employees from retaliation by their supervisors for whistleblowing, said her “capacity for improving government is limited by extreme resource challenges.” The caseload “skyrocketed to historic levels” during the past two years, she said, but she had to cut staff when her “already flat budget took a dramatic hit with sequestration.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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

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