Pen­tagon au­dit finds flaws in clear­ances

The Washington Times Weekly - - National Security - BY SHAUN WATER­MAN

The Pen­tagon may have is­sued top-se­cret clear­ances last year to as many as one-in-four ap­pli­cants who had “sig­nif­i­cant deroga­tory in­for­ma­tion” in their back­grounds, in­clud­ing a record of for­eign in­flu­ence or crim­i­nal con­duct, a lit­tle-no­ticed gov­ern­ment au­dit says.

Flaws in the sys­tem for grant­ing clear­ances to De­fense Depart­ment staff and con­trac­tors pose a risk to na­tional se­cu­rity, and the right tools to mea­sure how well the process works are es­sen­tial, said Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat and chair­man of a House in­tel­li­gence sub­com­mit­tee that over­sees per­son­nel and man­age­ment is­sues.

“At present, we’re ba­si­cally op­er­at­ing on faith. This shouldn’t be a faith-based process,” Ms. Eshoo told The Wash­ing­ton Times.

Ms. Eshoo was re­spond­ing to an au­dit pub­lished last month by the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice (GAO) warn­ing one in four top-se­cret clear­ances is­sued by the Pen­tagon last year had no record of why of­fi­cials had ap­proved the ap­pli­cant de­spite “sig­nif­i­cant deroga­tory in­for­ma­tion” that raised se­cu­rity con­cerns — most fre­quently about for­eign in­flu­ence or crim­i­nal con­duct.

The au­dit also found that nearly nine in 10 new top-se­cret clear­ances last year were granted even though back­ground in­vesti- gation files on the ap­pli­cant “were miss­ing at least one type of doc­u­men­ta­tion,” most of­ten em­ploy­ment ver­i­fi­ca­tion.

The Pen­tagon granted more than 450,000 ini­tial se­cu­rity clear­ances, and an­other 180,000 re­newals, to mil­i­tary per­son­nel, civil­ian em­ploy­ees and pri­vate con­trac­tors last year, based on the re­sults of back­ground in­ves­ti­ga­tions con­ducted by the U.S. Of­fice of Per­son­nel Man­age­ment (OPM).

Au­di­tors reached their con­clu­sions by ex­am­in­ing a ran­dom sam­ple of 3,500 files on top-se­cret clear­ances granted in July last year.

GAO au­di­tors said their re­port con­cen­trated on top-se­cret clear­ances be­cause peo­ple with them “have ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion that, if im­prop­erly dis­closed, could cause ex­cep­tion­ally grave dam­age to na­tional se­cu­rity.”

The risks in­her­ent in grant­ing se­cu­rity clear­ances to the wrong peo­ple are il­lus­trated by the case of Noured­dine Malki, a nat­u­ral­ized U.S. ci­ti­zen who worked as a con­tract trans­la­tor for the U.S. mil­i­tary in Iraq. Last year, Malki was sen­tenced to 10 years in prison and stripped of his cit­i­zen­ship af­ter plead­ing guilty of ly­ing about his back­ground, bi­og­ra­phy and even his name in his applications for cit­i­zen­ship and later a top-se­cret se­cu­rity clear­ance.

Pros­e­cu­tors said Malki had taken home classified doc­u­ments about the in­sur­gency in Iraq, and had been in “unau­tho­rized phone and e-mail con­tact [. . . ] with Sunni sheiks in the Sunni Trian- gle — in­di­vid­u­als from whom the de­fen­dant ad­mit­ted tak­ing bribes,” ac­cord­ing to a Feb. 7, 2007, pre­trial mem­o­ran­dum.

Re­tired Gen. James Clap­per, un­der­sec­re­tary of de­fense for in­tel­li­gence, ac­cepted the GAO re­port and agreed to im­ple­ment a se­ries of re­forms it rec­om­mended.

The au­dit, he said, “pro­vide[s] an ad­e­quate as­sess­ment of the depart­ment’s per­son­nel se­cu­rity pro­gram.”

Re­becca Allen, deputy di­rec­tor of se­cu­rity for the Pen­tagon, told The Times that the fact that the ra­tio­nale for grant­ing a clear­ance was not recorded did not mean a poor de­ci­sion had been made. “This ap­pears to be more an is­sue of doc­u­men­ta­tion,” she said.

“We’re con­fi­dent in our riskman­age­ment-based ap­proach,” she said, adding that ad­ju­di­ca­tors who de­cide whether to grant a clear­ance used “a whole-per­son con­cept. They con­sider fa­vor­able and un­fa­vor­able in­for­ma­tion from the past and the present and make de­ci­sions on a case-by-case ba­sis.”

She said the depart­ment had agreed to im­ple­ment a se­ries of re­forms rec­om­mended by the au­dit, in­clud­ing is­su­ing new guid­ance to in­ves­ti­ga­tors about the im­por­tance of “more con­sis­tently and prop­erly doc­u­ment­ing their de­ci­sions.”

Kathy Dil­la­man, the OPM as­so­ciate di­rec­tor in charge of back­ground in­ves­ti­ga­tions, said the au­di­tors adopted a “tick-the-box” ap­proach in say­ing that 90 per- cent of files were miss­ing doc­u­men­ta­tion.

“Our in­ves­ti­ga­tors are trained to find the best sources of in­for­ma­tion [about ap­pli­cants] and not just tick the box,” she said. For ex­am­ple, she said, some com­pa­nies would con­firm only the dates of em­ploy­ment, in which case in­ves­ti­ga­tors would seek other ways to ob­tain de­tails about a per­son’s work record.

“It’s not as black and white” as the au­dit made it out to be, she said. “There’s a fair amount of dis­cre­tion that has to be ap­plied” by OPM’s 6,300 in­ves­ti­ga­tors — three-quar­ters of whom are con­trac­tors. “You have to put some com­mon sense in there,” she said.

“In ev­ery case, a good de­ci­sion can be made” based on the back­ground in­ves­ti­ga­tions OPM passed to the Pen­tagon, she said, adding that ev­ery file was re­viewed by ex­pe­ri­enced staff in­ves­ti­ga­tors be­fore it was sub­mit­ted as part of the agency’s qual­ity as­sur­ance pro­gram.

Ms. Eshoo, Rep. Sil­vestre Reyes, Texas Demo­crat and chair­man of the House Per­ma­nent Se­lect Com­mit­tee on In­tel­li­gence, and Rep. Dar­rell Issa, Cal­i­for­nia Repub­li­can, are push­ing a bill that would man­date detailed an­nual re­ports to Congress on the clear­ance process.

“We can’t af­ford to go on without a very, very strong han­dle on who is be­ing al­lowed in and who should be kept out” of the na­tion’s classified in­for­ma­tion sys­tems, Ms. Eshoo said.

GETTY IM­AGES

Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, the Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat who chairs a key House in­tel­li­gence sub­com­mit­tee, is work­ing with other mem­bers of Congress to im­prove se­cu­rity clear­ances af­ter a gov­ern­ment au­dit found the process of ap­pli­cant in­ves­ti­ga­tion lack­ing.

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