DOD Personnel Clearances:

Questions for the Record Related to the Quality and Timeliness of Clearances

GAO-08-580R: Published: Mar 25, 2008. Publicly Released: Mar 25, 2008.

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Brenda S. Farrell
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On February 13, 2008, Mr. Jack Edwards--an Acting Director in our Defense Capabilities and Management team--testified before the subcommittee at a hearing on the Department of Defense (DOD) security clearance processes. This report responds to a Congressional request for additional information on that subject. Specifically, GAO was asked the following: (1) In the report that GAO issued today to this committee and your testimony statement, you discussed a need for more emphasis on quality in clearance products and processes. What have agencies been using as quality measures, and are they sufficient? (2) Do you believe that DOD, Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and Office of Personnel Management (OPM) have made the necessary commitment to improve the security clearance process? What steps need to be taken to ensure that on-going initiatives continue past this Administration? (3) The Intel Reform Act requires that timeliness statistics be reported to Congress. Do the timeliness statistics provide a full picture of how quickly clearances are being issued? If there are additional statistics that would add to the Congress's oversight of clearance timeliness, what types of factors should be considered in identifying additional metrics?

Through our reports and testimonies, we have emphasized a need to build more quality and quality monitoring into the clearances process. As we have reported, since 1999 government agencies have relied on a measure of quality--the percentage of investigative reports returned by requesting agencies to the investigating agency because of incompleteness--and this measure is insufficient. We find this measure to be problematic because the number of investigations returned for rework is not by itself a valid indicator of the quality of investigative work. One reason for this is that according to adjudication officials, they were reluctant to return incomplete investigations in anticipation of further delays. Additionally, this metric pertains only to the investigation phase of the clearance process, and there are no metrics for the other five phases of the investigative process (the clearance process has six phases: the requirements setting, application-submission, investigation, adjudication, appeal, and clearance updating). As noted in our February 13, 2008 report, we are encouraged by some department specific and governmentwide efforts that have improved DOD's personnel security clearance program. Examples of improvements to the process include (1) DOD's ability to electronically submit a clearance applicant's form authorizing the release of medical information and (2) a governmentwide effort that has resulted in the increased use of the Office of Personnel Management's (OPM) Electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing. Nevertheless, as we noted in our February 13, 2008 statement, we have identified a number of challenges in our past work that will require long-term commitment from this and subsequent administrations to further improve the security clearance process. Current and future efforts to reform personnel security clearance processes should consider, among other things, the following four key factors: (1) determining whether clearances are required for a specific position, (2) incorporating quality control steps throughout the clearance processes, (3) establishing metrics for assessing all aspects of clearance processes, and (4) providing Congress with the long-term funding requirements of security clearance reform. The timeliness statistics that OMB and OPM have provided to Congress may not convey the full magnitude of the time required to complete clearance investigations and adjudications. In May 2007, we reported the following five concerns with the transparency of the government's timeliness statistics: (1) limited information on reinvestigations for clearance updating, (2) not counting the total number of days to finish the application-submission phase, (3) shifting some investigation-related days to the adjudication phase or not counting them, (4) not counting the total number of days to complete closed pending cases, and (5) not counting the total number of days to complete investigations sent back for rework. Our preliminary observations of OMB's February 2008 Report of the Security Clearance Oversight Group and recent OPM congressional testimony indicate that there may be continuing problems in these areas.

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