The nation’s security clearance process resembles Washington’s streets after a tough winter — potholes everywhere.
Fixing potholes can’t be done on the same schedule used for reviewing security clearances, which occurs every five to 10 years.
Now, there’s a consensus within the Obama administration and among Democrats and Republicans in Congress that a more frequent review of clearances is needed.
The case of Aaron Alexis stimulates the heightened concern. He was the Washington Navy Yard contractor with a security clearance who fatally shot a dozen people there before being killed by police. Holes in his security clearance investigation allowed bright red flags in his background to go unnoticed.
Had there been a system of continuous evaluation, as the administration proposes, or automated reviews, as a bipartisan Senate bill would require, perhaps Alexis would have been stopped before he began his rampage.
However useful and needed such programs may be, they also might stop the careers of many law-abiding people.
The Army’s Automated Continuing Evaluation System (ACES) is instructive.
It screened 3,370 people, “selected randomly from a population of individuals with security clearance eligibility,” said Navy Cmdr. Amy Derrick-Frost, a Defense Department spokeswoman. Of those, 731, 21.7 percent, were found to have “previously unreported derogatory information,” according to the Pentagon’s Internal Review of the Washington Navy Yard Shooting.
This led to 176 reinvestigations and the discovery that 99 individuals had “serious derogatory information,” which includes issues such as domestic abuse, drug abuse and prostitution. Though having a financial problem is not a crime, officials can also put people in debt in the derogatory category.
“The Army revoked the clearances of 55 of these individuals and suspended the access of the remaining 44,” the internal review said. Those findings can be appealed. Derrick-Frost could not determine whether those with revoked clearances were fired or transferred.
The 99 with serious derogatory information amount to less than 3 percent of those in the pilot program. That doesn’t seem like much. But when placed against the 5.1 million people eligible to hold security clearances, that small percentage could turn into almost 150,000 employees, service members and contractors whose careers would be upended.
In some cases, that result would be overdue.
In other cases, some individuals could find their careers hijacked by a system that can be unforgiving to clearance holders harshly punished for encountering financial difficulties.
Being in serious debt can be deadly to the careers of security clearance holders. The theory is that big debt can make a person susceptible to bribes.
Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said that when his members are transferred, they sometimes have to sell their homes at a loss. That can result in big bills and “then security clearances are threatened.”
“My folks don’t need any more screening,” Adler said.
But more screening is coming. The question is what form it will take.
Among other recommendations, an interagency team, led by the Office of Management and Budget, urged a “robust Continuous Evaluation (CE) process” for clearance holders. This would require the development of a government-wide information technology system that would check the names of those with security clearances against various databases, such as police, court and credit records. These checks could be made at any time, rather than just during the five-year and 10-year reinvestigations required for those with secret and top-secret clearances, respectively.
Continuous evaluation is one of four recommendations pushed by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. A Suitability and Security Processes Review submitted to President Obama by the interagency team last week said the Pentagon’s ACES “and other CE pilots provide compelling evidence for many benefits of this more continuous approach to background investigations” throughout the government.
House legislation includes provisions for continuous evaluation and would require “that only federal employees, rather than outside contractors, are assigned the most critical work, including Top Secret-level background investigations,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (Mass.), the ranking Democrat on the House federal workforce subcommittee.
Legislation offered by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) would implement two randomly timed automated scans of public records and databases every five years for security clearance holders.
“In these high-risk environments, there is no room for error,” McCaskill said.
The bill is endorsed by the Federal Managers Association, the FBI Agents Association, the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers and the National Native American Law Enforcement Association, among other organizations, according to a list provided by Collins’s office.
She said the bill would help close a “gaping hole that allows troubled individuals to keep their clearances even though they clearly should no longer have them.”
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.