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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our recommendation, the DHS Chief Security Officer issued a memo to all Component Chief Security Officers setting new standards for tracking information on revocations and appeals in ISMS. Specifically, to ensure consistent processing of all security clearance revocations and appeals, DHS Personnel Security Divisions will be required to complete data fields to track the revocation process in ISMS and attach all relevant case files. This memo was distributed together with two ISMS help guides for reference. By mandating the use of these fields in ISMS, the DHS Office of the Chief Security Officer expects to be able to maintain more thorough and detailed information on revocations and appeals. By implementing our recommendation, DHS data systems will contain more complete information that can better facilitate oversight of the personnel security clearance revocation and appeals process

    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: DOD concurred with our recommendation. As of July 2018, DOD stated that the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence is facilitating Data Quality Initiatives to identify where gaps may exist and ensure all pertinent data is recorded and updated in JPAS and its successor system, the Defense Information System for Security (DISS). This recommendation remains open pending the department's fielding of DISS. GAO will monitor fielding of the new system, and the migration of data from JPAS to DISS.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On June 11, 2015, in response to our recommendation, DHS revised the department's personnel security instruction to state the individual does not have the right to call or cross-examine witnesses during the personal appearance of the appeals process. By implementing our recommendation, all employees within DHS will receive the same protections during their personal appearance.

    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: DOD partially concurred with our recommendation. DOD agreed with us to review legal or other impediments to consolidation, and stated that the DOD Office of General Counsel will address any unresolved disagreements about legal authority for consolidation of PSABs. DOD further commented that the DOD Office of General Counsel will work closely with the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence to address other issues concerning consolidation of PSABs. However, DOD commented that some DOD components disagreed with PSAB consolidation. Specifically, DOD stated that of the eleven components that provided responses to the draft report, eight concurred or had no issues or comments, while the remaining three components noted that the PSABs should remain at the component level and not be consolidated. As of July 2018, DOD stated that the DOD Office of General Counsel is conducting an ongoing review, with all legal opinions contingent upon a USD(I) funded PERSEREC study to determine the feasibility of PSAB consolidation. USD(I) is coordination with OGC in order to provide the results of the study upon completion. DOD estimates this study will be completed in the second quarter of Fiscal Year 2019. GAO will continue to monitor the completion of the study.

    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: DOD concurred with our recommendation. As of July 2018, DOD stated that Navy Instruction 5510.30C and concomitant manual M-5510.30 have been revised and are being coordinated throughout the Department of the Navy at every level--to include the Action Officer level. DOD stated the estimated completion date is December 2018.

    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: DOD partially concurred with our recommendation. DOD stated that some DOD components disagreed with PSAB consolidation. Specifically, DOD stated that of the eleven components that provided responses to the draft report, eight concurred or had no issues or comments, while the remaining three components noted that the PSABs should remain at the component level and not be consolidated. One of these three components also commented that the perceived efficiencies from consolidation described in our report should be validated and that all models for consolidation should be evaluated before a decision is made that would consolidate the PSABs. DOD's comments reflect internal disagreement, which corroborates our finding that there is disagreement within DOD on the legal authority, risks, and benefits of consolidating the department's multiple appeals boards. As we also note in our report, the Secretary of Defense has already directed this consolidation. As of July 2018, DOD stated that the Office of General Counsel's determination on the legal impediments to consolidation is contingent upon the results of he PERSEREC study, which will assess the feasibility of PSAB consolidation. The study results will inform the OGC decision. DOD estimates this study will be completed in the second quarter of Fiscal Year 2019. This recommendation will remain open until DOD takes steps to consolidate the PSABs.

    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: DOD concurred with this recommendation. As of July 2018, DOD stated that the Army updated its PSAB guidance in 2016 to include the GAO-recommended verbiage regarding new information. Similar language will also be incorporated in Army Regulation 380-67, which is currently under revision. DOD estimates the revision will be completed in the fourth quarter of Fiscal Year 2019. GAO will monitor the status of this regulation and assess whether the revised regulation meets the intent of this recommendation.

    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: DHS concurred with our recommendation. As of August 2018, the Commandant of the Coast Guard issued a policy message stating that individuals may have counsel or other representatives present at the service member's own expense. According to a Coast Guard official, this message serves as interim guidance until the personnel security manual can be finalized. Coast Guard officials stated that the manual will be undergoing revision, and is expected to be updated at the end of March 2019 . This recommendation will remain open until the Coast Guard finalizes the update to its manual in accordance with our recommendation.

    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: ODNI concurred with our recommendation. As of August 2018, ODNI did not respond to requests for updates on the status of this recommendation. When we confirm what actions ODNI 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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On September 14, 2016, in response to our recommendation, the DHS Chief Human Capital Officer and Chief Security Officer jointly issued a memorandum to DHS component Chief Security Officers and DHS component Human Resources Directors. The memorandum clarifies what information will be exchanged at which intervals when information is received that may impact an employee's eligibility for a national security position or their federal employment. A DHS official stated that this memorandum would be posted or linked on the DHS intranet web site, on relevant pages with human capital and personnel security clearance information. By implementing our recommendation, DHS will be better able to combat the perception that the personnel security process is being used to circumvent procedural protections ordinarily provided to federal employees subject to adverse employment actions, and to help ensure that individuals are being treated in a fair and consistent manner.

    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: DOD concurred with our recommendation. As of August 2018, DOD stated that they will continue dialog with USD(P&R) to determine if any improvements should be made concerning the coordination process for unfavorable personnel security clearance actions and subsequent personnel actions that may occur--to include the junction points where security personnel should be notifying human resources personnel. This recommendation remains open pending the department's issuance of pertinent guidance.

    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: DOD concurred with our recommendation. As of August 2018,DOD stated that this recommendation is tied to recommendation 2 regarding updating information in JPAS and DISS. Officials from the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence (USD(I) is facilitating Data Quality Initiatives to identify where gaps may exist and ensure all pertinent data is recorded and updated in JPAS and its successor system, DISS. Officials stated that there is an annual or quarterly service specific personnel center synchronization effort to match the data in JPAS and the personnel centers. Since publication of our report through December 2017, DMDC has conducted 413 DQIs to evaluate and correct data anomalies in JPAS. Further, on a monthly basis, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence (OUSD(I)), the Defense Manpower Data Center (DMDC), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), DOD components, and industry participate in a meeting which addresses actions to improve the accuracy of information in JPAS. GAO will monitor fielding of the new system and in the process of validating DOD officials' statements that discrepancies have been substantially resolved.

    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: ODNI concurred with our recommendation. As of August 2018, ODNI did not respond to requests for updates on this recommendation. When we confirm what actions DNI 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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