Security-Clearance Problems Back on Congress’ Radar

But there’s no “silver bullet” to address the massive federal background-check backlog.

Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner and Chairman Richard Burr
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Feb. 8, 2018, 8 p.m.

Just about everyone on Capitol Hill agrees the federal security-clearance process is broken. But a comprehensive solution to fix it remains elusive.

The issue is back on lawmakers’ radar after the Government Accountability Office added the process to its “High Risk List” as the backlog of individuals waiting for background checks to be completed has ballooned to more than 700,000. The nonpartisan congressional watchdog wasn’t scheduled to update the list, which highlights areas in government in need of reform, until early 2019, but it made an exception for the security-clearance system.

The massive delays in authorizing federal employees, applicants, and contractors to handle classified information has been a problem for years, and the GAO has placed the process on the High Risk List in the past. Lawmakers from both parties see the problem as a national security risk and a waste of government funds. But they’re not on the same page on how to best address it—or whether that responsibility even lies with Congress.

“Everyone wants there to be a silver-bullet explanation or solution that does it nicely or simply, but there isn’t one,” said Bradley Moss, an attorney who specializes in security-clearance law. “There’s no simple answer.”

Senate Intelligence Committee ranking member Mark Warner told National Journal that the issue would be “one of my top priorities this year.” After the GAO’s move, Warner sent a letter to Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney asking for more funding for agencies to complete the application process.

“I’m going to first of all try to work with the [Defense Department] and the intel community to see what kind of process reforms we can get,” Warner said. “This is both a waste of taxpayer money—having people hired and not be able to do their jobs—and it’s also a security concern when we’ve got so many critical roles going unfilled.”

The issue has also drawn attention from Warner’s counterpart, Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr. In a brief interview, Burr noted that the panel has held hearings on the matter and said a bill to address it is “still in the works,” although he did not offer specifics.

“It’s a screwed-up mess,” Burr said. “You would hope that they could do it on their own, but I think it will require legislation.”

In the past, efforts to reform the security-clearance process on the Hill have come out of the oversight committees. Most recently, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved legislation last fall that would require the National Background Investigations Bureau, a subagency within the Office of Personnel Management that handles security-clearance applications, to regularly submit reports on the backlog, as well as for the White House to detail its own process. The bill has yet to make it to the Senate floor.

But even one of the measure’s sponsors, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, said the burden to solve the problem should fall more on federal agencies than on Congress.

“I think that the challenge with the security stuff is that, I think they have the tools to do it; they just need to do a better job,” Tester said. “I don’t know why this is such a train wreck.”

The government has had trouble keeping up with security-clearance applications ever since 9/11, when the pool of federal contractors began to greatly expand. The problem exploded in 2014 when OPM declined to renew its contract with United States Investigative Services, which was handling the majority of the government’s background checks. Two years later, OPM launched the NBIB to take over that role. But the backlog grew by another 150,000 cases from the end of 2016 to September 2017.

The most significant step lawmakers have taken in response since then was to allow the Defense Department to take over the security-clearance process for its own employees in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act. But the GAO cited concerns over how the Pentagon will implement a new system to handle these applications as one of the reasons why it was adding the overall process back to its High Risk List.

“It’s never going to be a perfect system, but we have to try to make it more efficient,” Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed said.

Even outside of the DoD and NBIB, there are some agencies, like the CIA, that manage security clearances internally. Moss said that in an ideal world, there would be one overarching vetting agency to handle all the applications. As long as the process remains decentralized, he anticipates the problems will continue.

“You would have to create a standardized process with uniform standards everyone can adhere to so you can streamline this,” Moss added.

Rep. Mark Meadows, a Republican on the House Oversight Committee who opposed authorizing the Pentagon to assume control of its clearance process, said he doesn’t think the issue will become a priority in Congress anytime soon.

“There is a legislative initiative that could be done,” Meadows said, “but I don’t think there’s the political will to do that.”

What We're Following See More »
AVOIDS SHUTDOWN WITH A FEW HOURS TO SPARE
Trump Signs Border Deal
6 days ago
THE LATEST

"President Trump signed a sweeping spending bill Friday afternoon, averting another partial government shutdown. The action came after Trump had declared a national emergency in a move designed to circumvent Congress and build additional barriers at the southern border, where he said the United States faces 'an invasion of our country.'"

Source:
REDIRECTS $8 BILLION
Trump Declares National Emergency
6 days ago
THE DETAILS

"President Donald Trump on Friday declared a state of emergency on the southern border and immediately direct $8 billion to construct or repair as many as 234 miles of a border barrier. The move — which is sure to invite vigorous legal challenges from activists and government officials — comes after Trump failed to get the $5.7 billion he was seeking from lawmakers. Instead, Trump agreed to sign a deal that included just $1.375 for border security."

Source:
COULD SOW DIVISION AMONG REPUBLICANS
House Will Condemn Emergency Declaration
1 weeks ago
THE DETAILS

"House Democrats are gearing up to pass a joint resolution disapproving of President Trump’s emergency declaration to build his U.S.-Mexico border wall, a move that will force Senate Republicans to vote on a contentious issue that divides their party. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said Thursday evening in an interview with The Washington Post that the House would take up the resolution in the coming days or weeks. The measure is expected to easily clear the Democratic-led House, and because it would be privileged, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would be forced to put the resolution to a vote that he could lose."

Source:
MILITARY CONSTRUCTION, DRUG FORFEITURE FUND
Where Will the Emergency Money Come From?
1 weeks ago
THE DETAILS

"ABC News has learned the president plans to announce on Friday his intention to spend about $8 billion on the border wall with a mix of spending from Congressional appropriations approved Thursday night, executive action and an emergency declaration. A senior White House official familiar with the plan told ABC News that $1.375 billion would come from the spending bill Congress passed Thursday; $600 million would come from the Treasury Department's drug forfeiture fund; $2.5 billion would come from the Pentagon's drug interdiction program; and through an emergency declaration: $3.5 billion from the Pentagon's military construction budget."

Source:
TRUMP SAYS HE WILL SIGN
House Passes Funding Deal
1 weeks ago
THE DETAILS

"The House passed a massive border and budget bill that would avert a shutdown and keep the government funded through the end of September. The Senate passed the measure earlier Thursday. The bill provides $1.375 billion for fences, far short of the $5.7 billion President Trump had demanded to fund steel walls. But the president says he will sign the legislation, and instead seek to fund his border wall by declaring a national emergency."

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login