Security Clearances Delayed After OPM Hack Suspends Background Checks

Officials announced that OPM’s tool for submitting background-check forms will be taken offline for four to six weeks.

National Journal
Aliya Sternstein, Nextgov
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Aliya Sternstein, Nextgov
June 30, 2015, 8:36 a.m.

A Defense Department Web system that tracks employee background investigations will be offline for an unspecified amount of time, while officials fix security holes in a civilian-agency database connected to the tool, according to department officials.

A vulnerability in an Office of Personnel Management tool that links to the Pentagon’s “Joint Personnel Adjudication System” was discovered during a probe into one of the worst-known hacks to hit the U.S. government.

On Monday, officials announced that OPM’s e-QIP system, the online tool used for submitting background-check forms, would be taken offline for four to six weeks, during security improvements.

As of 3:30 p.m., the military’s site stated: “Due to current maintenance with e-QIP, the corresponding JPAS interfaces are not currently functioning. As a result, users will not be able to submit investigations using JPAS.”

OPM officials say there is no evidence hackers used the vulnerability to compromise information.

Users will not be able to file investigations through the Pentagon’s JPAS system until e-QIP is back online, Defense spokesman Nate Christensen told Nextgov late Monday evening.

“”ŽCurrently, there is no capability to submit new investigations,” or what he referred to as SF-86 forms for obtaining security clearances to access classified information, “until the e-QIP malfunction is resolved.”

It is unclear how Defense personnel data and e-QIP data are commingled. But Christensen said, “There are currently no known issues with the JPAS data due to the e-QIP vulnerabilities and its subsequent shutdown by OPM.”

The JPAS system’s other functions are available.

“The actions OPM has taken are not the direct result of malicious activity on this network,” officials said in a statement. “OPM is taking this step proactively, as a result of its comprehensive security assessment, to ensure the ongoing security of its network.”

OPM officials later on Monday acknowledged the outage will affect the ability to obtain security clearances, already a sometimes yearlong endeavor for federal employees and contractors.

In the meantime, “there are existing policies that permit agencies the flexibility to on-board individuals,” OPM spokesman Sam Schumach said in a statement. “OPM also will explore other options for submitting forms while e-QIP is down, he said.

“OPM recognizes and regrets the impact on both users and agencies and is committed to resuming this service as soon as practicable,” Schumach added.

OPM technology personnel and experts from across the government advised Archuleta that the “vulnerability posed a significant risk that warranted immediate action,” he said, declining to discuss specifics.

Meanwhile, federal officials currently are still gauging the extent of multiple intrusions at OPM that netted 4.2 million federal personnel records and perhaps as many as 18 million files on employees with access to U.S. secrets, including military members. After the breaches were disclosed earlier this month, the White House ordered all agencies to take a series of steps to find security holes in their systems and plug them, among other things.

OPM also is applying additional “modern security controls” to its systems, some of which are 30-year-old mainframes, as part of a grander security overhaul, OPM Director Katherine Archuleta announced last week.

“The security of OPM’s networks remains my top priority as we continue the work outlined in my IT strategic plan,” Archuleta, who lawmakers are pressing the White House to remove from office, said in a statement Monday. “This proactive, temporary suspension of the e-QIP system will ensure our network is as secure as possible for the sensitive data with which OPM is entrusted.”

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