The abrupt shutdown of the nation’s beleaguered security clearance system will further hamper a program that has been beset by all sorts of problems over the past few years, creating a significant backlog and potentially even disrupting key government operations, industry officials say.
The Office of Personnel Management announced Monday that it was taking the Web-based system used for background investigations offline after a “vulnerability” was discovered. That move followed the massive cyberattacks on the agency, potentially exposing the security clearance database and the personnel files of at least 4.2 million current and former federal employees.
Suspending the ability to conduct new investigations “is a huge deal,” said Evan Lesser, the co-founder of ClearanceJobs.com, an employment placement site. “If the system is shut down for six weeks or more, you’re looking at a flood of records coming into the system whenever it is turned back on. And so we can expect to see whatever backlog there is now increase.”
OPM, which conducts the majority of federal background investigations, has a massive workload, completing more than 1 million investigations last year, according to the agency’s most recent annual report. The timing of the shutdown is particularly bad, with the federal government beginning the fourth quarter of its fiscal year, said Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council.
“This is often the busiest time of the year from a contract perspective,” he said. “Companies who have to put people in place on contracts are unable to process clearances. That could create some real disruption in the system.”
Every day the system is offline “puts you further and further behind,” said Carolyn Martin, president of the American Federal Contract Investigators Association.
In a statement, OPM spokesman Sam Schumach said the closure “is expected to have an impact on agencies’ ability to initiate investigations for new employees, contractors and individuals due for reinvestigation.”
“However, much of the business of hiring and clearing individuals continues,” he wrote. “USA Jobs and the initial hiring processes have not been affected. Background investigations in process at OPM’s Federal Investigative Services as of Friday night, June 26th are being conducted and are not affected.”
He also said agencies have flexibilities to allow new employees to start work using “interim procedures” without a full-blown background investigation.
OPM said that it decided to shut down the system as a proactive measure and that “there is no evidence that the vulnerability in question has been exploited.”
The agency has been under fire from Congress since the massive cybersecurity breaches reported last month, which could compromise the sensitive personal information of millions of employees, including those in the intelligence community.
The exposure of that information could have further fallout as well, Lesser said, deterring other people from going to work for the government or its contractors.
People with clearances turn over the details of their entire lives to the federal government, he said. And everything from brushes with the law, alcohol or drug problems, psychological counseling and family information is laid out in the files. With the breach, many are now wondering whether “they want to trust whether the government can safeguard that information,” Lesser said.
There have also been questions raised about the quality of the investigations used in determining whether someone should be granted a clearance. A whistleblower lawsuit filed by Blake Percival, a former fieldwork services director, and joined by the Justice Department alleged that a contractor was rushing investigations in order to hit revenue targets.
That company, USIS, lost the contract last year, creating a disruption in the investigative process as other firms had to ramp up their operations to take on USIS’s workload, which averaged 21,000 cases a month. The Washington Post reported last month that those companies, KeyPoint Government Solutions and CACI, were using a quota system, similar to USIS, to drive their investigators’ productivity. But with the system shut down, the work may eventually come to a halt.