Personnel Security Clearances:

Additional Guidance and Oversight Needed at DHS and DOD to Ensure Consistent Application of Revocation Process

GAO-14-640: Published: Sep 8, 2014. Publicly Released: Sep 8, 2014.

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What GAO Found

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Defense (DOD) both have systems that track varying levels of detail related to revocations of employees' security clearances. DHS's and DOD's data systems could provide data on the number of and reasons for revocations, but they could not provide some data, such as the number of individuals who received a proposal to revoke their eligibility for access to classified information, which means that the total number of employees affected by the revocation process is unknown.

Inconsistent implementation of the requirements in the governing executive orders by DHS, DOD, and some of their components, and limited oversight over the revocation process, have resulted in some employees experiencing different protections and processes than other employees. Specifically, DHS and DOD have implemented the requirements for the revocation process contained in Executive Orders 12968 and 10865 in different ways for different groups of personnel. Although certain differences are permitted or required by the executive orders, GAO found that implementation by some components could potentially be inconsistent with the executive orders in two areas. As a result, some employees may not be provided with certain information upon which a revocation appeal determination is based, and may not be told that they have a right to counsel. These inconsistencies in implementation may be in part because neither DHS nor DOD have evaluated the quality of their processes or developed performance measures to measure quality department-wide. Similarly, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has only exercised limited oversight by reviewing policies and procedures within some agencies. ODNI has not established any metrics to measure the quality of the process government-wide and has not reviewed revocation processes across the federal government to determine the extent to which policies and procedures should be uniform.

DHS and DOD employees whose clearances were revoked may not have consistent employment outcomes, such as reassignment or termination, because these outcomes are determined by several factors, such as the agency's mission and needs and the manager's discretion. Further, most components could not readily ascertain employment outcomes of individuals with revoked clearances, because these data are not readily available, and communication between personnel security and human capital offices at the departments varies.

GAO's comparison of the total number of DOD employees eligible to access classified information to the total number of DOD employees in fiscal year 2013 suggests that DOD's clearance eligibility totals may be inaccurate. Specifically, GAO found that the number of eligible employees exceeded the total number of employees in five DOD components. DOD officials said this discrepancy could be because DOD's eligibility database is not consistently updated when an employee separates. As a result, the total number of government employees eligible to access classified information that ODNI reports to Congress likely overstates the number of eligible DOD employees. Inaccurate eligibility data hampers DOD's ability to reduce its number of clearance holders to minimize risk and reduce costs to the government.

Why GAO Did This Study

Personnel security clearances allow people access to classified information that, through unauthorized disclosure, can cause exceptionally grave damage to U.S. national security. In light of recent events, having a high-quality process to determine whether an individual's eligibility to access classified information should be revoked has become increasingly important. DOD and DHS grant the most clearances in the executive branch, and the Director of National Intelligence is responsible for, among other things, oversight of clearance eligibility determinations.

GAO was asked to evaluate revocation processes at DHS and DOD. GAO evaluated the extent to which the agencies (1) track data on these processes; (2) consistently implement government-wide requirements and exercise oversight over these processes; and (3) determine outcomes for employees whose clearances were revoked. During this review, GAO identified possible inaccuracies in DOD's data on eligible personnel with access to classified information and is also reporting on that issue. GAO analyzed agency revocation data, reviewed executive orders, agency guidance, and documents, and interviewed officials from ODNI, DHS, DOD, and their components.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that DHS, DOD, and the DNI take several actions to improve data quality and oversight related to the personnel security revocation process. DHS, DOD, and ODNI generally agreed with GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact Brenda S. Farrell at (202) 512-3604 or farrellb@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the respective DHS and DOD data systems contain sufficiently complete and accurate information to facilitate effective oversight of the personnel security clearance revocation and appeal process, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Chief Security Officer to assess the benefits and associated costs of tracking additional revocation and appeals information, and take any steps necessary to modify the Integrated Security Management System (ISMS) to track such information as is deemed beneficial.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the respective DHS and DOD data systems contain sufficiently complete and accurate information to facilitate effective oversight of the personnel security clearance revocation and appeal process, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence to take steps to ensure that data are recorded and updated in the Joint Personnel Adjudication System (JPAS) and the department's new systems, so that the relevant fields are filled.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that all employees within DHS receive the same protections during their personal appearance, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Chief Security Officer to revise and finalize the DHS instruction regarding the personnel security program to clarify whether or not employees are allowed to cross-examine witnesses during personal appearances.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help ensure independence and the efficient use of resources, the Secretary of Defense should direct the DOD General Counsel to first, resolve the disagreement about the legal authority to consolidate the PSABs (Personnel Security Appeals Board) and, in collaboration with the PSABs and the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, address any other obstacles to consolidating DOD's PSABs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that all employees within DOD receive the same rights during the revocation process, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Navy to revise Secretary of the Navy Manual M-5510.30 to specify that any information collected by the Navy PSAB from the employee's command will be shared with the employee, who will also be given the opportunity to respond to any such information provided.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help ensure independence and the efficient use of resources, and, if the General Counsel determines that there are no legal impediments and that other obstacles to consolidation can be addressed, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Defense Legal Services Agency to take steps to implement the Secretary of Defense's direction to consolidate DOD's PSABs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that all employees within DOD receive the same rights during the revocation process, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Army to revise Army Regulation 380-67 to specify that any information collected by the Army PSAB from the employee's command or by the Army PSAB itself will be shared with the employee, who will also be given the opportunity to respond to any such information provided.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  8. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that all employees are treated fairly and receive the protections established in the executive order, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Commandant, U.S. Coast Guard, to revise the Coast Guard instruction for military personnel to specify that military personnel may be represented by counsel or other representatives at their own expense.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  9. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To facilitate department-wide review and assessment of the quality of the personnel security clearance revocation process, the DNI should, in consultation with the Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security, develop performance measures to better enable them to identify and resolve problems, and direct the collection of related revocation and appeals information.

    Agency Affected: Office of the Director of National Intelligence

  10. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To facilitate coordination between personnel security and human capital offices regarding how a security clearance revocation should affect an employee's employment status, and to help ensure that individuals are treated in a fair and consistent manner, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Under Secretary for Management to review and revise policy regarding coordination between the personnel security and human capital offices to clarify what information can and should be communicated between human capital and personnel security officials at specified decision points in the revocation process, and when that information should be communicated.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  11. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To facilitate coordination between personnel security and human capital offices regarding how a security clearance revocation should affect an employee's employment status, and to help ensure that individuals are treated in a fair and consistent manner, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in consultation with the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, to review and revise policy regarding coordination between the personnel security and human capital offices to clarify what information can and should be communicated between human capital and personnel security officials at specified decision points in the revocation process, and when that information should be communicated.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  12. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the DNI report to Congress contains accurate data about the number of current DOD military and federal civilian employees eligible to access classified information, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to review and analyze the discrepancies in the total number of employees and the number of employees eligible to access classified information, and take immediate steps to address the problems.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  13. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that similarly situated individuals are treated consistently, and to facilitate oversight and help ensure the quality of the security clearance revocation process, the DNI should review whether the existing security clearance revocation process is the most efficient and effective approach. In this review, the DNI should consider whether there should be a single personnel security clearance revocation process used across all executive-branch agencies and workforces, with consideration of areas such as the timing of the personal appearance in the revocation process, and the ability to cross-examine witnesses. Further, to the extent that a single process or changes to the existing parallel processes are warranted, the DNI should consider whether there is a need to establish any policies and procedures to facilitate a more consistent process, and recommend as needed any revisions to existing executive orders or other executive-branch guidance.

    Agency Affected: Office of the Director of National Intelligence

 

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