The subject of the congressional hearing was the Obama administration’s new system for federal security clearance investigations, but a departed federal official and a recently appointed one could not escape attention.
Among some praise, there were probing and skeptical questions about the plan to develop a new agency, the National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB), within the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), to conduct security checks. But much of that was not as interesting as the discussion about the two officials.
Just after the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing convened Thursday, attention turned to Donna Seymour, who was to have been the star witness at a different hearing the day before.
But Seymour, the former OPM chief information officer quit on Monday, rather than face the wrath of committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). He had been gunning for her resignation since OPM revealed last year that the personal information of 22 million federal employees and others was snatched in a massive cyber theft of background information.
Wednesday’s hearing on the data breach was cancelled after her resignation, an event Chaffetz earlier hailed as “good news… necessary and long overdue.”
The top Democrat on the panel, however, believes Seymour was hounded from office by misplaced political attacks.
“Our investigation has now found that the cyber-attacks against OPM were already underway when Ms. Seymour took office in December 2013. In addition, experts in and out of the agency informed us that she helped uncover the attack, she led an aggressive response, and she elevated cyber security to a top priority when previously it had languished,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.).
“So I believe these recent political attacks against Ms. Seymour are both unfair and inaccurate. They also set a terrible precedent that will discourage qualified experts from taking on the challenges our nation faces in the future.”
Cummings also spoke in favor of Beth Cobert, the acting OPM director whom President Obama has appointed to the full time post. Her nomination, however, is being blocked by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.).
Another cloud over Cobert is her status as acting director has been challenged by OPM’s inspector general. A letter from him said a court ruling means that under circumstances that apply to her, she is not eligible to be the acting official after being nominated.
Cobert is a convenient target for Vitter’s dislike of the Affordable Care Act. He is piqued over not receiving information from OPM on how Congress was able to get a small business health care taxpayer funded subsidy. Word that he has her nomination blocked, an action he previously threatened, was released shortly before the hearing began.
“As much as federal bureaucrats enjoy hiding behind layers of red tape, we have now reached the point where OPM can no longer avoid explaining how Congress was allowed to purchase health insurance as a small business – when it clearly is not,” Vitter’s statement said. “Ms. Cobert’s nomination will not move forward in any capacity until the American people have received answers as to why Washington’s Obamacare Exemption exists.”
Cummings complained that Vitter’s hold on the nomination is “not for anything relating to the actions of Ms. Cobert. …There is absolutely no reason to continue playing politics.”
In the spirit of bipartisanship, Chaffetz agreed that he and Cummings would send a letter to the Senate urging Cobert’s confirmation.
“I want to be one that is counted as supporting her nomination,” Chaffetz said.
On the new background investigation plan, committee members had some uncomfortable questions for Cobert and other administration witnesses.
Chaffetz was incredulous that the witnesses could not provide an acceptable answer to why the government does not make better use of social media in background probes.
“Where are we on this,” he asked Tony Scott, the government’s chief information officer.
Scott didn’t know.
Chaffetz, rubbing his head in frustration, said “we give top security clearance… and we can’t go online and look at their social media… Go hire a bunch of teenagers. They’d do it better than we’re doing it.”
Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) recalling other OPM cyber issues, was not convinced the administration will be able to begin operation of the National Background Investigations Bureau by October as planned.
“I just think that’s happy talk…” he said, “dream world stuff.”
“Interestingly enough,” he added, “the only stuff that hasn’t been hacked is the stuff that we’re doing by hand.”