Personnel Security Clearances: Additional Actions Needed to Ensure Quality, Address Timeliness, and Reduce Investigation Backlog

GAO-18-29 Published: Dec 12, 2017. Publicly Released: Dec 12, 2017.
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Highlights

What GAO Found

Executive branch agencies have made progress reforming the security clearance process, but long-standing key initiatives remain incomplete. Progress includes the issuance of common federal adjudicative guidelines and updated strategic documents to help sustain the reform effort. However, agencies face challenges in implementing certain aspects of the 2012 Federal Investigative Standards—criteria for conducting background investigations—including establishing a continuous evaluation program, and the issuance of a reciprocity policy to guide agencies in honoring previously granted clearances by other agencies remains incomplete. Executive branch agencies have taken recent steps to prioritize over 50 reform initiatives to help focus agency efforts and facilitate their completion. In addition, while agencies have taken steps to establish government-wide performance measures for the quality of investigations, neither the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) nor the Security, Suitability, and Credentialing Performance Accountability Council (PAC) have set a milestone for their completion. Without establishing such a milestone, completion may be further delayed and agencies will not have a schedule against which they can track progress or to which they are accountable.

The number of executive branch agencies meeting established timeliness objectives for initial security clearances decreased from fiscal years 2012 through 2016, and reporting has been limited. For example, 59 percent of the executive branch agencies reviewed by GAO reported meeting investigation and adjudication timeliness objectives for initial top secret clearances in fiscal year 2012, compared with 10 percent in fiscal year 2016. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTPA) required the executive branch to submit an annual report, through 2011, to appropriate congressional committees on, among other things, the time required to conduct investigations, adjudicate cases, and grant clearances. Since the requirement ended, reporting has been limited to a portion of the intelligence community. Without comprehensive reporting, Congress will not be able to monitor agencies' progress in meeting timeliness objectives, identify corrections, or effectively execute its oversight role.

The National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB), within the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), has taken steps to improve the background investigation process, but it faces operational challenges in addressing the investigation backlog and increasing investigator capacity. While NBIB has taken positive steps to improve its oversight of background investigation contracts, it faces operational challenges in reducing the investigation backlog—which grew from 190,000 cases in August 2014 to more than 709,000 in September 2017. To increase capacity NBIB has hired additional federal investigators and increased the number of its investigative fieldwork contracts, but it has not developed a plan for reducing the backlog or established goals for increasing total investigator capacity. Without such a plan and goals, the backlog may persist and executive branch agencies will continue to lack the cleared personnel needed to help execute their respective missions. The bill for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, passed by Congress in November 2017, would authorize DOD to conduct its own background investigations.

Why GAO Did This Study

A high-quality personnel security clearance process is necessary to minimize the risks of unauthorized disclosures of classified information and to help ensure that security-relevant information is identified and assessed. The passage of IRTPA initiated an effort to reform the security clearance process government-wide.

This report assesses the extent to which (1) executive branch agencies made progress reforming the security clearance process; (2) executive branch agencies completed timely initial clearances from fiscal years 2012-2016, and reported on timeliness; and (3) NBIB has taken steps to improve the background investigation process and address the backlog. GAO reviewed documentation; analyzed timeliness data; and interviewed officials from the four PAC Principals and NBIB. This is a public version of a sensitive report that GAO issued in December 2017. Information that the DNI and OPM deemed sensitive has been omitted.

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Recommendations

Congress should consider reinstating the IRTPA requirement for clearance timeliness reporting. GAO is also making six recommendations, including that the DNI and other PAC Principals set a milestone for establishing measures for investigation quality, and that NBIB develop a plan to reduce the backlog and establish goals for increasing total investigator capacity. NBIB concurred with the recommendations made to it. The DNI did not concur with GAO's conclusions and recommendations. GAO continues to believe they are valid, as discussed in the report.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

Matter Status Comments
Congress should consider reinstating the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004's requirement for the executive branch to report annually to appropriate committees of Congress on the amount of time required by authorized investigative and adjudicative agencies to conduct investigations, adjudicate cases, and grant initial personnel security clearances. Congress should also consider adding to this reporting requirement the amount of time required to investigate and adjudicate periodic reinvestigations and any other information deemed relevant, such as the status of the investigation backlog and implementing government-wide measures for the quality of investigations or other reform efforts. (Matter for Consideration 1)
Closed – Implemented
The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 (Public Law 115-91) adopted GAO's matter for congressional consideration that Congress consider reinstating the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004's security clearance reporting requirements. The final version of the bill, which was signed into law on December 12, 2017, requires the Security Executive Agent, in coordination with the Chair and other Principals of the Security, Suitability, and Credentialing Performance Accountability Council to submit an annual assessment of timeliness including: (1) average time to initiate cases, conduct investigations, and adjudicate cases as compared with established milestones; (2) number of initial investigations and periodic reinvestigations carried over from prior fiscal years by each authorized investigative and adjudicative agency; (3) number of initial investigations and periodic reinvestigations that resulted in a denial or revocation of a security clearance by each authorized adjudicative agency; (4) costs to the executive branch related to personnel security clearance initiations, investigations, adjudications, revocations, and continuous evaluation; (5) number of personnel security clearance cases, both initial investigations and periodic reinvestigations, awaiting or under investigation by the National Background Investigations Bureau; and (6) other information as appropriate, including any recommendations to improve the timeliness and efficiency of personnel security clearance initiations, investigations, and adjudications.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Office of the Director of National Intelligence The Director of National Intelligence, in his capacity as Security Executive Agent, and in coordination with the other Security, Suitability, and Credentialing Performance Accountability Council Principals--the Deputy Director for Management of Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in his capacity as Chair of the PAC, the Director of OPM, and the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence--should establish a milestone for the completion of government-wide performance measures for the quality of investigations. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Not Implemented
ODNI stated that it did not concur with the report's conclusions and recommendations, but did not specifically state whether it did not concur with this recommendation. Since the issuance of GAO's report, ODNI has taken steps that have overcome the relevance of this recommendation. Specifically, in 2019, ODNI developed a performance measure for assessing the quality of investigations, without first having established a milestone for its completion. At this point, establishing a milestone after having developed a performance measure is no longer relevant. As a result, we are closing this recommendation as not implemented.
Office of the Director of National Intelligence The Director of National Intelligence, in his capacity as Security Executive Agent, and in coordination with the other Security, Suitability, and Credentialing Performance Accountability Council Principals--the Deputy Director for Management of OMB in his capacity as Chair of the PAC, the Director of OPM, and the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence--should conduct an evidence-based review of the investigation and adjudication timeliness objectives for completing the fastest 90 percent of initial secret and initial top secret security clearances.(Recommendation 2)
Open
ODNI stated that it did not concur with many of the report's recommendations but did not state with which recommendations it did not concur. In 2018, the Performance Accountability Council (PAC) Program Management Office began a review of the timeliness objectives, according to ODNI and PAC Program Management Office officials. ODNI officials stated in August 2019 that Trusted Workforce 2.0 is developing timeliness objectives that are achievable and based on empirical evidence. ODNI officials told us that when the PAC agrees on the specific steps that will be included in the revised personnel vetting processes under the Trusted Workforce 2.0 reform, the PAC Program Management Office will finalize its analysis of those steps to determine the time needed to complete them. Using that analysis, the PAC will establish a revised set of timelines objectives. As of May 2021, ODNI officials reiterated that they intend to include the revised timeliness objectives in Trusted Workforce 2.0 guidance, and that the revised objectives will be achievable with the reformed vetting processes. To fully implement this recommendation, the PAC needs to issue Trusted Workforce 2.0 guidance that contains the revised timeliness objectives. As of September 2022, ODNI officials officials told us that they have not taken action to implement this recommendation. To fully implement this recommendation, the PAC needs to issue Trusted Workforce 2.0 guidance that contains the revised timeliness objectives.
Office of the Director of National Intelligence The Director of National Intelligence, in his capacity as Security Executive Agent, and in coordination with the other Security, Suitability, and Credentialing Performance Accountability Council Principals--the Deputy Director for Management of OMB in his capacity as Chair of the PAC, the Director of OPM, and the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence--should develop a government-wide plan, including goals and interim milestones, to meet those timeliness objectives for initial personnel security clearance investigations and adjudications. (Recommendation 3)
Open
ODNI stated that it did not concur with the report's recommendations but did not state with which recommendations it did not concur. As of May 2021, ODNI officials told us that they intend to revise timeliness objectives based on an analysis that the PAC Program Management Office is conducting. Officials told us that these revised objectives will be included in Trusted Workforce 2.0 guidance. Officials also told us that the government-wide plan to meet the revised objectives is the reformed personnel security clearance process in Trusted Workforce 2.0. As of September 2022, ODNI officials told us that no action had been taken on this recommendation since 2021. To fully implement this recommendation, the PAC needs to issue Trusted Workforce 2.0 guidance that fully articulates the plans for the reform.
National Background Investigations Bureau The Director of NBIB, in coordination with the Deputy Director for Management of OMB, in the capacity as Chair of the PAC, and the Director of National Intelligence, in the capacity as Security Executive Agent, should develop a plan, including goals and milestones, that includes a determination of the effect of the business process reengineering efforts for reducing the backlog to a "healthy" inventory of work, representing approximately 6 weeks of work. (Recommendation 4)
Closed – Implemented
NBIB concurred with this recommendation. In December 2018, NBIB issued a Backlog Mitigation Plan that outlines, among other things, courses of action to decrease the backlog of background investigations and set a goal of June 2020 for returning to a "normal" inventory. The plan outlines courses of action including: identifying specific business process reengineering efforts, increasing the investigative workforce, and implementing other measures, such as changes to the clearance process, to help reduce the backlog. As of July 2019, there has been a significant reduction in the background investigation backlog. This action meets the intent of our recommendation.
National Background Investigations Bureau The Director of NBIB, in coordination with the Deputy Director for Management of OMB, in the capacity as Chair of the PAC, and the Director of National Intelligence, in the capacity as Security Executive Agent, should establish goals for increasing total investigator capacity--federal employees and contractor personnel--in accordance with the plan for reducing the backlog of investigations. (Recommendation 5)
Closed – Implemented
NBIB concurred with this recommendation. In December 2018, NBIB issued a Backlog Mitigation Plan that outlines, among other things, a course of action to increase investigator capacity to eliminate the backlog and to meet future investigative demand. As of February 2019, NBIB has increased the number of investigators to 8,698 and reduced the backlog of background investigations. This action meets the intent of our recommendation.
National Background Investigations Bureau The Director of NBIB should build upon NBIB's current workforce planning efforts by developing and implementing a comprehensive strategic workforce plan that focuses on what workforce and organizational needs and changes will enable the bureau to meet the current and future demand for its services. (Recommendation 6)
Closed – Implemented
NBIB concurred with this recommendation. In September 2019, NBIB issued a Strategic Workforce Plan that identified a set of initiatives to help further hiring goals and enhance employees' professional development. These initiatives included: (1) employing various hiring options such as term hires, which gives managers the flexibility to adjust hiring as the inventory is reduced and manage new employees' employment duration expectations, (2) increasing the use of different hiring authorities to expand candidate pools, (3) creating a manpower function responsible for managing manpower activities such as mission needs assessments, attrition data collection, and predictive analysis, and (4) instituting development programs to prepare for or support attrition, surge requirements, and succession planning. This action meets the intent of our recommendation.

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