Se­nate panel probes se­cu­rity clear­ance woes

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY DAN BOYLAN

The process to ob­tain ac­cess to clas­si­fied gov­ern­ment in­for­ma­tion has be­come so “ab­surd” that when then-Sen. Dan Coats, who served on the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, was named Pres­i­dent Trump’s di­rec­tor of na­tional in­tel­li­gence, he needed to re-ap­ply for a se­cu­rity clear­ance.

“Be­cause there was that short-term gap, he had to go through a whole new se­cu­rity clear­ance process,” Vir­ginia Sen. Mark Warner, the rank­ing Demo­crat on the Se­nate in­tel­li­gence panel. “That was pretty ab­surd.”

In Jan­uary, the Gov­ern­ment Accountability Of­fice went so far as to place the se­cu­rity clear­ance process on its “high risk” list of ar­eas re­quir­ing im­me­di­ate broad-based re­form, not­ing that the back­log for in­ves­ti­gat­ing job can­di­dates for se­cu­rity clear­ances has more than tripled in four years to 710,000.

The prob­lems in­clude an an­ti­quated sys­tem es­tab­lished to thwart out­side threats, but works poorly against in­ter­nal threats like Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency leaker Ed­ward Snow­den; the fail­ure to em­ploy cut­ting-edge tech­nol­ogy to sim­plify back­ground checks; and, as in Mr. Coats’ case, the reality that a clear­ance at one gov­ern­ment agency of­ten does not trans­fer to an­other part of the gov­ern­ment.

With 23 different agen­cies, and sub­cat­e­gories within agen­cies, the du­pli­ca­tion is mas­sive, experts told a Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee hear­ing Wed­nes­day.

The Trump White House, strug­gling with the is­sue of the se­cu­rity sta­tus woes of pres­i­den­tial ad­viser/son-in-law Jared Kush­ner and ex-White House aide Rob Porter and a back­log of se­cu­rity checks for other Ex­ec­u­tive Branch per­son­nel, ac­cuses the fed­eral bu­reau­cracy of ex­ploit­ing the se­cu­rity clear­ance process to hurt the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s agenda.

“The se­cu­rity clear­ance process is be­ing weaponized by anti-Trump bu­reau­crats who are us­ing it as a tool to not only thwart the pres­i­dent’s agenda but to pre­vent him from in­stalling ap­pointees who will ex­e­cute it,” Sean Bigley, a fed­eral se­cu­rity clear­ance lawyer who rep­re­sents sev­eral se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials caught up in the process, said in an in­ter­view this week.

In the past five years, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has at­tempted to over­haul the back­ground check process since it was re­vealed that the last firm in charge, Vir­ginia-based USIS, had failed to com­plete some 665,000 in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

“De­spite re­cent head­lines, the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of those wait­ing don’t have un­usu­ally com­plex back­grounds or fi­nances to un­tan­gle,” he said.

As a re­sult, the wait­ing time be­tween get­ting a job and be­ing cleared to work at a gov­ern­ment agency, or pri­vate business con­tract­ing with the gov­ern­ment re­quir­ing one — of­ten runs at least a year.

Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee Chair­man Richard Burr, North Car­olina Repub­li­can, asked David Berteau, pres­i­dent of the Pro­fes­sional Ser­vices Coun­cil, which rep­re­sents the gov­ern­ment con­tract­ing staffing business, about the de­lays.

“Why’s it take so damn long?” Mr. Burr asked.

Kevin Phillips, pres­i­dent and CEO of gov­ern­ment con­trac­tor ManTech, said the process, es­tab­lished dur­ing the Eisen­hower ad­min­is­tra­tion, is “very man­ual” and re­quires in­ves­ti­ga­tors to make per­sonal vis­its to check up on some­one with hand­writ­ten notes, not com­puter tablets. There is also a mat­ter of trust, he added.

“Peo­ple want to walk through the process and make sure, in this en­vi­ron­ment, that peo­ple are trust­wor­thy,” he said, “and the time­line is tak­ing longer be­cause the as­sur­ance is needed.”

Mr. Warner noted that the se­cu­rity in­dus­try is a far larger than un­der Pres­i­dent Eisen­hower, with work­ers now far more mo­bile across ca­reers, in­dus­try sec­tors and lo­ca­tion.

“Tech­nol­ogy such as Big Data and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence can help as­sess peo­ple’s trust­wor­thi­ness in far more ef­fi­cient and dy­namic ways,” he said. “But we have not taken ad­van­tage of th­ese ad­vances. We need a rev­o­lu­tion to our sys­tem.”


Then-Sen. Dan Coats (cen­ter), who served on the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, needed to re-ap­ply for a se­cu­rity clear­ance when he was named Pres­i­dent Trump’s di­rec­tor of na­tional in­tel­li­gence.

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