Almost four years after the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, the Bush administration is struggling to speed up investigations for security clearances and reduce a backlog of cases.
The process for vetting government employees and contract workers was designated a "high risk" area in January by the Government Accountability Office, which monitors federal programs for Congress.
Yesterday, Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) said terrorism and intelligence programs suffer when federal job applicants and contractors are left "in a state of limbo" for a year or more waiting for security clearances.
Voinovich, who called a hearing on clearances as chairman of the Senate subcommittee on government management and the federal workforce, told Bush administration officials: "I am going to be on this like a junkyard dog. We are going to get this off the high-risk list. Does everyone understand me?"
After hearing administration officials and a GAO analyst offer conflicting views on how much progress has been made on speeding up security clearances, Voinovich said he would ask top officials at the Office of Management and Budget, including OMB Director Joshua B. Bolton and OMB Deputy Director Clay Johnson III, to get involved in finding a fix.
The White House, apparently to show that it is paying attention to the issue, released an executive order on the eve of the hearing. The president's directive would set up a framework for complying with recent legislation that called for streamlining the clearance process.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks prompted a number of agencies to recommend that more employees have access to classified information and that clearance levels be raised for other employees. The stepped-up demand put new pressure on a system that had been snarled in delays for more than a decade.
The administration, after two years of interagency talks, consolidated background investigations in February at the Office of Personnel Management. The Defense Department transferred 1,578 employees to OPM and more than 146,000 pending investigations. With the consolidation, OPM handles about 90 percent of the government's clearance work.
But Derek B. Stewart, the GAO analyst, expressed skepticism that the consolidation would produce quick improvements.
In two recent years, he testified, the Pentagon underestimated the number of background investigations it needed by at least 100,000 cases. Defense and OPM also face problems in linking up their computer systems to share data and conduct investigations, he said.
"If I was OPM, I would be scared to death of this program," Stewart said.
Heather Anderson, the Pentagon official in charge of the transfer of security clearance investigations to OPM, said work on procedures and systems over the past two years has led to improvements. She said Defense has about 329,000 cases in the clearance pipeline.
Kathy L. Dillaman, a deputy associate director at OPM, said the agency has augmented its staff with about 6,000 contract employees from six companies. She predicted that the added staff would enhance OPM's productivity by year's end.
This year, OPM projects it will face 550,000 new requests for background investigations involving access to classified information and almost 900,000 background checks to determine if employees can be deemed trustworthy.
Larry Stiffler, director of automated services at the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, is retiring after 35 years of government service. Stiffler, who began his career as an engineer at Patuxent Naval Air Station and later held senior positions with the Navy and the Agriculture Department, became a senior staff member at the thrift board in 1986. Board officials have praised him for steering the Thrift Savings Plan through a rocky conversion to a new record-keeping system and for upgrading TSP's computer operations.
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