Personnel Security Clearances: Additional Guidance and Oversight Needed at DHS and DOD to Ensure Consistent Application of Revocation Process

GAO-14-640 Published: Sep 08, 2014. Publicly Released: Sep 08, 2014.
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Highlights

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.

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Recommendations

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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Homeland Security 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.
Closed – Implemented
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
Department of Defense 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.
Open – Partially Addressed
DOD concurred with our recommendation. As of September 2022, this recommendation remains open pending receipt of information from DOD about the department's fielding of an updated Defense Information System for Security (DISS), which became the system of record in March 2021. According to an update provided by DOD, DISS contains an Appeals application that includes a variety of data fields to capture revocation and appeals related data. GAO is in the process of validating the fields and processes in DISS to ensure that fields in DISS related to revocations will be filled. GAO has requested documentation from DOD that would provide information about what specific information is recorded in DISS related to the revocation process. Despite requests in March and July 2022, GAO had not received the requested documentation as of September 2022. To fully implement this recommendation, DOD needs to provide documentation showing the information recorded in DISS related to the revocations and appeal process.
Department of Homeland Security 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.
Closed – Implemented
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.
Department of Defense 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.
Open – Partially Addressed
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 September 2022, this recommendation remains open because DOD has not yet addressed any obstacles related to consolidating Personnel Security Appeals Boards. On July 10, 2015, DOD Office of General Counsel issued a memo stating that there is no legal obstacle to co-location or consolidation of the Services' Personnel Security Appeal Boards (PSABs) within the Defense Legal Services Agency. The memo further requested that the Director, Defense Personnel Security and Research Center, to do further assessment, after which the DOD OGC, in coordination with the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, will consider whether any further actions should be taken. According to DOD officials, in response to that memo, the Defense Personnel Security and Research Center conducted a study to, among other things, assess the feasibility of consolidating the Personnel Security Appeals Boards. According to DOD officials, this study was completed in June 2020. According to a DOD update to this recommendation, a working group commissioned by the Defense Security Enterprise Advisory Group, and co-led by the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals and Washington Headquarters Services, is developing recommendations for DOD senior leadership to address the remaining barriers and concerns to consolidation. The working group is expect to complete this work in the third quarter of fiscal year 2021. Despite requests in March and July 2022, GAO had not received an update on the status of these efforts as of September 2022. GAO will continue to monitor DOD's response to this recommendation. To fully implement this recommendation, DOD should take actions to address the remaining barriers and concerns about consolidation of the PSABs.
Department of Defense 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.
Closed – Implemented
DOD concurred with our recommendation. As of January 2020, the Navy has revised relevant guidance. Specifically, in January 2020, the Secretary of the Navy issued Secretary of the Navy Instruction 5510.30C, Department of the Navy Personnel Security Program. This instruction strongly encourages commands to submit a position paper directly to the PSAB. The instruction further provides that the PSAB will only solicit a command position when the personal appearance presents substantial information not included in the individual's rebuttal to the letter to revoke their clearance. It further states that when this happens, the command will have 10 days to respond and will afford the individual the opportunity to review the information prior to submission to the PSAB. By implementing our recommendation, the Navy will help ensure that the Navy PSAB does not deny an employee some of the protections provided in the executive order.
Department of Defense 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.
Open
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 September 2022, this recommendation remains open because, as noted in a prior recommendation, DOD has not yet identified or addressed obstacles to consolidating the Personnel Security Appeals Boards, despite having determined that there are no legal obstacles to consolidation. According to a DOD update to this recommendation, the Defense Personnel Security and Research Center completed a study in July 2020 that identified remaining obstacles to consolidation. A working group commissioned by the Defense Security Enterprise Advisory Group, and co-led by the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals and Washington Headquarters Services, is developing recommendations for DOD senior leadership to address the remaining barriers and concerns to consolidation. The working group is also to present feasible plans to co-locate or consolidate the PSABs, and that work is expect to be completed in the third quarter of fiscal year 2021. Despite requests in March and July 2022, GAO had not received an update on the status of these efforts as of September 2022. To fully implement this recommendation, DOD needs to take steps to consolidate the PSABs.
Department of Defense 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.
Open
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. As of September 2022, this recommendation remains open pending a finalized version of Army Regulation 380-67. According to a DOD update to this recommendation, a major revision to Army Regulation AR 380-67, "Army Personnel Security Program," incorporates the Personnel Security Appeal Boards (PSAB's) requirement to provide any documents it obtains, after receipt of a personnel security file, to the subject who will be allowed a reasonable period of time to respond prior to PSAB rendering a final decision. As of September 2020, DOD officials said that the revision of AR 380-67 was expected to be completed in the third quarter of fiscal year 2021, but the update had not been published as of September 2022. Despite requests in March and July 2022, as of September 2022 GAO had not received an update on the status of the revision to this regulation. To fully implement this recommendation, the Army needs to revise Army Regulation 380-67 consistent with this recommendation. GAO will monitor the status of this regulation and assess whether the revised regulation meets the intent of this recommendation.
Department of Homeland Security 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.
Open
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 no earlier than October 31, 2020 . As of September 2022, a Coast Guard official stated that the manual will be undergoing additional revision, and is expected to be updated in November 2022. To implement this recommendation, the Coast Guard needs to update its personnel security manual in accordance with our recommendation.
Office of the Director of National Intelligence 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.
Open
ODNI concurred with our recommendation. As of November 2019, ODNI stated that review proceedings considerations have been a focus of the ongoing Trusted Workforce 2.0 discussions with a view toward whether policy changes were necessary. ODNI further stated that one key to further examination of this issue is to gather metrics which can inform any subsequent adjustment to the current Executive Branch revocation and review proceedings area. They stated that metrics collection has begun with a January 2019 data call which includes the capture of metrics on denials, revocations, and national security adjudications resulting in an adverse adjudication of eligibility for access to classified information or eligibility to hold a sensitive position. Metrics collected is expected to be completed in 2020. Our review of the ODNI metrics found that the items related to revocations were simply counts of actions taken, such as the number of initial investigations and periodic reinvestigations (PR) completed by another agency that resulted in a denial or revocation; number of denials or revocations that occurred separately from a PR; number of initial investigations and PRs that resulted in a denial or revocation, that were appealed, or overturned on appeal; and polygraphs resulting in a denial or revocation. While ODNI's metrics represent progress, they are not performance measures that would help ODNI substantively assess the quality of the revocation process. As of September 2022, GAO had not received an update from ODNI on the status of the development of any additional metrics. To implement this recommendation, ODNI needs to develop performance measures that can enable them to assess the quality of the revocation process.
Department of Homeland Security 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.
Closed – Implemented
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.
Department of Defense 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.
Open
DOD concurred with our recommendation. As of September 2022, this recommendation remains open pending the department's issuance of pertinent guidance. According to DOD, changes to DOD Manual 5200.02, Procedures for the DOD Personnel Security Program" are being drafted and coordinated to revise policy and identify the appropriate intersections for the exchange of information between human capital offices and security officials. As of September 2020, DOD officials said that the revision of DOD Manual 5200.02 was expected to be completed in the third quarter of FY2021, but the update had not been published as of September 2022. Despite requests in March and July 2022, as of September 2022 GAO had not received an update on the status of the revision to this manual. To fully implement this recommendation, DOD needs to revise its guidance consistent with this recommendation.
Department of Defense 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.
Closed – Implemented
DOD concurred with our recommendation. In response to our recommendation, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence OUSD(I) and the Defense Manpower Data Center have used Data Quality Initiatives (DQIs) to enhance the completeness and accuracy of JPAS data prior to migration to its successor system, DISS. According to DOD officials, data quality initiatives conducted in 2017 and 2018 eliminated extraneous data from JPAS that had resulted in inaccurate number of personnel eligible to access classified information. Specifically, according to documentation provided in March 2022, DMDC has conducted several hundred data quality initiatives to evaluate and correct data anomalies in JPAS. For example, these data quality initiatives included actions to address active access records related to separated or dead person categories with a separation or death date or status code, and to archive records that did not have an active owning or servicing entity. DOD officials said that these initiatives eliminated thousands of obsolete records and reduced the population of DOD personnel eligible for access to classified information by almost 700,000. In addition, in 2017, DOD issued a JPAS data correction checklist that shows that JPAS is now updated monthly by the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System, which is DOD's system for confirmation of identity, affiliation and benefits eligibility. Further, DOD officials stated that 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. By implementing our recommendation, DOD will have a more accurate understanding of the total number of DOD employees eligible for access to classified information, and will be better positioned to provide complete information to Congress and other interagency stakeholders.
Office of the Director of National Intelligence 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.
Open
ODNI concurred with our recommendation. As of November 2019, ODNI stated that there is not currently an ongoing effort to review the security clearance revocation process across all executive branch agencies and workforces. Instead, the Trusted Workforce 2.0 efforts is conducting an end-to-end review of the current security clearance process for the executive branch and ODNI is currently gathering metrics on adverse security actions which can inform any subsequent determination on whether the revocation process requires policy adjustment by the DNI. As of September 2022, GAO had not received an update from ODNI on the status of any actions DNI has taken in response to this recommendation. To implement this recommendation, DNI needs to analyze the efficiency and effectiveness of the security clearance revocation process, including consideration of areas such as timing of the personal appearance and ability to cross-examine witnesses, and determine whether a single process or the existing parallel process are warranted and whether any new policies and procedures or revisions to existing guidance is needed.

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