DOD Personnel Clearances:

DOD Needs to Overcome Impediments to Eliminating Backlog and Determining Its Size

GAO-04-344: Published: Feb 9, 2004. Publicly Released: Feb 24, 2004.

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Terrorist attacks and espionage cases have heightened national security concerns and highlighted the need for a timely, high-quality personnel security clearance process. However, GAO's past work found that the Department of Defense (DOD) had a clearance backlog and other problems with its process. GAO was asked to address: (1) What is the size of DOD's security clearance backlog, and how accurately is DOD able to estimate its size? (2) What factors impede DOD's ability to eliminate the backlog and accurately determine its size? (3) What are the potential adverse effects of those impediments to eliminating DOD's backlog and accurately estimating the backlog's size? GAO was also asked to determine the status of the congressionally authorized transfer of Defense Security Service (DSS) investigative functions and personnel to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

DOD did not know the size of its security clearance backlog at the end of September 2003 and has not estimated the size of the backlog since January 2000. DOD cannot estimate the size of its backlog of overdue reinvestigations that have not been submitted for renewal, but prior estimates of this portion of the backlog suggest it was sizeable. Using September 2003 data from DSS, OPM, and nine adjudication facilities, GAO calculated the size of investigative and adjudicative portions of the backlog at roughly 270,000 and 90,000 cases, respectively. Because these estimates were made using time-based goals that varied from agency to agency, the actual backlog size is uncertain. Several impediments hinder DOD's ability to eliminate--and accurately estimate the size of--its clearance backlog. Four major impediments slowing the elimination of the backlog are (1) the large numbers of new clearance requests; (2) the insufficient investigator and adjudicator workforces; (3) the size of the existing backlog; and (4) the lack of a strategic plan for overcoming problems in gaining access to state, local, and overseas information needed to complete investigations. Two other factors have hampered DOD's ability to develop accurate estimates of the backlog size. DOD has failed to provide adequate oversight of its clearance program, including developing DOD-wide backlog definitions and measures and using the measures to assess the backlog regularly. In addition, delays in implementing its Joint Personnel Adjudication System have limited DOD's ability to monitor backlog size and track when periodic reinvestigations are due. DOD's failure to eliminate and accurately assess the size of the backlog may have adverse effects. Delays in updating overdue clearances for command, agency, and industry personnel who are doing classified work may increase risks to national security. Slowness in issuing new clearances can increase the costs of doing classified government work. Finally, DOD's inability to accurately define and measure the backlog and project future clearance requests that it expects to receive can adversely affect its ability to develop accurate budgetary and staffing plans. In December 2003, advisors to OPM's Director recommended that the authorized transfer of DOD's investigative functions and personnel to OPM should not occur for at least the rest of fiscal year 2004. That recommendation was based on uncertainties over financial risks that OPM might incur. An alternative plan being discussed by DOD and OPM calls for leaving investigative staff in DSS and giving them training for, and access to, OPM's case management system. A DOD official estimated that using the OPM system, instead of DOD's current system, would avoid about $100 million in update and maintenance costs during the next 5 years. Also, as of December 16, 2003, the Secretary of Defense had not provided Congress with certifications required prior to any transfer.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD Response: Concur. DOD will develop backlog definitions and measures and "dashboard-like" tools to more effectively monitor their personnel security clearance process. According to DOD, JPAS will include a module to verify and validate all investigative requests for DOD military personnel and a subset of the civilian population. DOD continues to develop a full solution to this recommendation. As part of the effort of placing DOD's personnel security clearance program on GAO's high-risk list in January 2005, the Deputy Director of OMB met with GAO officials and indicated that (1) OMB staff would work with DOD and OPM to develop preliminary milestones and metrics for correcting problems associated with DOD's personnel security clearance program, and (2) GAO would be asked to comment on that information. Based on our review of OMB's plan, we concluded it meets the intent of our recommendation.

    Recommendation: Because of continuing concerns about the size of the backlog and its accurate measurement and the personnel security clearance program's importance to national security, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence to develop DOD-wide backlog definitions and measures, and monitor the backlog at each of the three clearance-process stages using the DOD-wide measures.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD Response: Concur. The Department is addressing this issue, but a more formal approach will be developed. DOD's solution to this recommendation remains under development. Efforts are now underway to obtain access to INTERPOL and State Department databases for criminal history information. Also, separate studies are underway to enhance data collection of overseas and domestic information through automated means.

    Recommendation: Because of continuing concerns about the size of the backlog and its accurate measurement and the personnel security clearance program's importance to national security, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence to develop a strategic plan for overcoming problems accessing data locally, at the state level, and overseas.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD Response: Partially concur. To address the issue, DOD is developing a verification and validation module to predict and validate investigative requirements, as well as looking into interfacing with other databases (e.g., acquisition) to be able to better predict future and continuing investigative needs. OUSD(I) has directed the DOD Components to adequately budget for their investigative requirements and for those with adjudication responsibilities to adequately staff and resource the central adjudication facility in order to meet its mission requirements. In February 2005, DOD transferred its personnel security investigative function to OPM, and now obtains nearly all of its clearances from OPM. In November 2005, OPM reports that personnel security clearance personnel staffing has exceeded its 2004 estimate of 8,000. For the adjudicative workforce portion of this recommendation which is still relevant to DOD, substantial progress has been seen. GAO-07-842T (p. 11) noted "As of June 2006, DISCO [the adjudication center for clearance decisions for most industry personnel] reported that it had adjudicated 82 percent of its initial top secret clearances within 30 days." Similarly, OMB's February 2007 report (final bullet on p. 4) to Congress on clearance-related issues noted, "DOD...averaged 18 days for 80% of the 108,903 actions reported." The IRTPA-mandated requirement is to adjudicate 80 percent within 30 days. Thus, DOD's clearance adjudications have met the IRTPA-mandated requirement. Thus, it appears that DOD now has sufficient adjudicative workforce available to render clearance decisions within the time limit specified by IRTPA.

    Recommendation: Because of continuing concerns about the size of the backlog and its accurate measurement and the personnel security clearance program's importance to national security, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence to identify and implement steps to match the sizes of the investigative and adjudicative workforces to the clearance request workload.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD Response: Concur. Full implementation of the Joint Personnel Adjudication System (JPAS) is the goal and efforts are underway to achieve it. According to DOD, JPAS became operational in March 2005. We reported in June 2005 testimony that much of JPAS has been implemented allowing for the monitoring of overdue reinvestigations, the generation of accurate estimates for that portion of the backlog, and elimination of the need for DOD's 10 adjudication facilities to maintain their own databases of adjudication information.

    Recommendation: Because of continuing concerns about the size of the backlog and its accurate measurement and the personnel security clearance program's importance to national security, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence to complete the implementation of the Joint Personnel Adjudication System.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

 

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