No Secret What's Wrong With Clearances

By Stephen Barr
Friday, May 18, 2007

Candor is often in short supply at congressional hearings, but not at yesterday's Senate session on efforts to speed up security clearances for new federal workers and private contractors.

Robert Andrews, deputy undersecretary of defense for counterintelligence and security, responded "no" when asked by Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) if he had enough money to upgrade computers and streamline procedures for determining who is eligible for top-secret and other clearances by the Defense Department.

His colleague, Kathleen M. Watson, director of the Defense Security Service, told Voinovich that her agency faces a $25 million budget shortfall this year, is spending about $10 million annually to keep an outdated computer system running, and probably needs about $200 million at a minimum for a new system.

Even if fully funded now, she added, the new technology could not be deployed until 2010 or 2011.

Yesterday's testimony before the Senate federal workforce subcommittee, chaired by Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), detailed the second consecutive year that funding woes have hampered work at the Defense Security Service.

A year ago, the agency had to suspend the processing of security clearances for contractors because of a budget crisis. The Defense Security Service, Andrews said, has suffered because of "a failure of leadership."

But he said Watson was turning the agency around. She was named director in February, making her the first permanent director there in five years.

Timely approval of security clearances has become a hot topic at companies that contract with the Pentagon, in part because of industry competition for corporate employees who have security clearances to work on weapons systems and other sensitive projects.

Some companies offer luxury cars or signing bonuses of up to $20,000 to recruit people with clearances. They often jump from company to company, picking up 5 to 10 percent more in salary with each new job. The market competition often drives up government contract costs beyond what is necessary.

The official designated by the White House to improve the process for granting security clearances -- Clay Johnson III, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget -- seemed a bit put off by the notion that funding for an improved security process could be an issue at the Pentagon.

Johnson said the Defense Department has all the money it needs to improve its handling of security clearance applications and reviews, noting that the millions of dollars at stake "are not even a rounding error" in the multibillion-dollar defense budget.

The OMB will help the Pentagon move money around in its budget to fix problems in the security clearance process, Johnson said. Still, when asked by Voinovich if he could lean on somebody at the Pentagon to free up funds, Johnson said, "I can't make them reallocate that money."

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