White House objects to Senate security clearance reforms

The White House says a new agency-level appeals process for clearance denials could expose classified information, increase processing time.

The DoD Reporter’s Notebook is a weekly summary of personnel, acquisition, technology and management stories that may have fallen below your radar during the past week, but are nonetheless important. It’s compiled and published each Monday by Federal News Network DoD reporters Jared Serbu and Scott Maucione.

Trump Administration pushes back on new appeals process for security clearance denials

The White House is raising new opposition to Senate-passed legislation that aims to add transparency and due process to the government’s security clearance process.

In a letter, the Trump administration said it “strongly objects” to a portion of the 2021 intelligence authorization bill that would, among other things, give federal employees and contractors new appeal rights when an agency denies them a clearance.

The provision would require each agency to set up a review panel to let clearance seekers challenge a government decision to deny a clearance — including when agencies deny requests for reciprocity for people who already have a clearance. As part of that process, agencies would have to turn over all the documents they used to make their decision, and clearance seekers would have the right to be represented by attorneys and to cross-examine witnesses.

The White House said the provision risks exposing sensitive information and making the clearance adjudication process more cumbersome and time consuming.

“The security clearance appeals process is already well-established, understood, and practiced across the executive branch, and its elements are readily available to the public via various mechanisms,” Russell Vaught, the director of the Office of Management and Budget wrote in a letter last week. “This provision would require significant changes to current processes, as it includes trial-like provisions that may be difficult or inappropriate for agencies to implement and that would place the protection of sensitive or classified information at unnecessary risk.”

Senators seemed to recognize there would be cases when the appeals process could risk exposing classified information. The legislation does allow agency heads to refuse to allow appeals in “exceptional” cases where an appeal could create national security risks.

But agencies would also have to disclose how often they’re using that waiver provision, and notify Congress within 30 days of refusing to allow an appeal. The government’s Security Executive Agent would also have to publish annual reports detailing how often agencies are denying clearances, and the results of their appeals.

The Senate passed the legislation in July as a single package alongside its version of the Defense authorization bill. The overall package is now being negotiated in a House-Senate conference committee. —JS

Army preparing for future climate change impacts

Hurricanes have been battering the Gulf Coast this year, wildfires are ravishing the west and superstorms seem to be a new norm in natural disasters. With climate change likely to affect the world’s weather patterns more in the future, the Army is taking precautions to protect its installations.

Last week, the service issued a directive to prepare against disasters resulting from climate change that requires planners and managers to establish resilience measures to safeguard valuable assets and minimize readiness impacts.

“Climate change has already had a big impact on Army installation infrastructure and threatens to degrade mission readiness. I think it’s going to continue to have an increasingly large impact going forward,” said Stephen Dornbos, science and technology policy fellow in the office of the assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and environment said in a release last week. “There are a lot of concerns about wildfires in California and energy supply being threatened. There are adaptation strategies that installations could use to better prepare themselves.”

Effective immediately, commanders of installations “will assess, plan for and adapt to the projected impacts of changing climate and extreme weather by adding related plans, policies and procedures,” the memo, signed by Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, states.

Read more: Defense news

“This practice will enhance installation readiness and safety because it informs the installation master planning process and facility design requirements,” said Alex Beehler, assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and environment. “In the event of a climate-related event, our Army installations will be better prepared to provide the critical capabilities essential to the Army’s ability to deploy, fight and win our nation’s wars.”

The Army will use a web-based Army Climate Assessment Tool to give installations the ability to assess exposure to weather-related threats and projections.

Last month, the Army released its Climate Resistance Handbook. The 69-page document addresses risk-informed planning and choosing climate preparedness and resilience measures.

The changes stem from House Armed Services Emerging Threats Subcommittee Chairman Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) who pushed a provision a few years ago to assess climate change in the military.

“The loss from climate change is not only in dollar terms, but in lost training or lost capabilities. If a base is underwater or out of commission there are readiness costs to that, and preparedness costs as well as physical costs,” Langevin told Federal News Network last year. “I want us to be realistic, as well as cognizant, of the threats and challenges we face and then do our best to protect against those losses.” — SM

Even the intelligence community is finding ways to ramp up telework

It’s no surprise that the intelligence community hasn’t quite achieved the level of work-from-home capabilities that much of the rest of the government has during the COVID-19 pandemic. But even the three-letter agencies that deal with some of the government’s most sensitive information are finding ways to let at least some of their employees telework.

One example is in the development of new software capabilities at the National Security Agency. Even before the pandemic, NSA realized it would be more efficient to do as much development work as possible in unclassified cloud environments, said Greg Smithberger, the director of the agency’s capabilities directorate and its CIO.

“For the last three or four years, we’ve been thinking very hard about the unique development we do for our classified environment, and we’ve determined that a lot of those foundational technologies can actually be started in a highly protected unclassified environment,” he said at an annual conference hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance and AFCEA. “They can then be pushed up to the high side and finished with those very exotic bits of classified technology, and then rolled into our classified environment.”

But even if it’s possible for NSA’s own employees to do some types of unclassified work at home, NSA quickly discovered a problem when the pandemic struck: its contractors couldn’t.

“In many cases we found that we needed to modify our contracts, because although some of the work was allowed to be done in an unclassified space, it was specified to be done on a network that was certified and accredited by NSA, and we explicitly prohibited telework,” Smithberger said. “We really regretted that, so we quickly scrambled to modify some contracts to allow also our contractors to participate with us in these protected low-side environments that were built for these specific needs.”

Doug Cossa, the deputy CIO at the Defense Intelligence Agency said DIA is even looking at ways to conduct actual intelligence analysis work in a telework environment – provided that analysts are working only on unclassified open-source intelligence (OSINT).

“The preponderance of our collection and analysis is going to remain on the top secret fabric. But with OSINT, we’ve certainly accelerated the concept and have developed pilot to look at what functions we could do at home in a telework state,” he said. “So while it’s not an operational implementation, we have pilots out to look at what is the art of the possible – which we’d never done before COVID existed.”

And like many other agencies, DIA realized it needed to move quickly once the pandemic hit to improve its VPN infrastructure so that at least its employees who deal with only unclassified information could work from home.

“In the past, we made separate investments in really stovepiped capabilities for email, voice, video, etcetera. What we discovered on the unclassified environment is we were able to partner with industry and other entities to quite quickly stand up an unclassified integrated environment of all those capabilities,” he said. “When we first started this, our email architecture was designed to support really only a couple hundred users concurrently. Within a matter of days, we were up to multi-thousand more people connecting into email concurrently, which we were not designed for at all. Luckily, we were successful. I think under normal circumstances, that would have probably been a multi-month or multi-year endeavor. For us, it was a matter of days. —JS

Air Force implementing diversity targets

The Air Force is rethinking race in the wake of a summer filled with tension. Air Force Recruiting Service will begin working toward monthly diversity targets in hopes of bringing in the best and the brightest from all areas.

Air Recruiting Service Commander Maj. Gen. Edward Thomas said last week that the service needs to look past its traditional recruiting demographics, including geographic areas.

The targets will begin in 2021, Thomas did not speculate on what the targets may be. He stated the new monthly standards are not quotas, but rather targets to work toward.

The Army has already started working on widening its aperture for recruiting a couple years ago after it fell short of meeting its recruitment goals in 2018.

Read more: Army news

The Army changed its tactics by reaching out to 22 cities that traditionally didn’t bring in a lot of recruits like Boston and Seattle.

The Air Force, like the other military services, has been looking at its policy through a racial lens since the death of George Floyd.

Former Chief Master Sgt. Kaleth Wright announced in June that the Air Force will conduct a full, independent review of its military justice system.

However, the Air Force’s history with race is complicated. In May, documents  surfaced alleging that the Air Force did not address issues and recommendations about racial disparities highlighted in reports from the organization and from the Government Accountability Office. — SM

Lawmakers propose monumental change to military sexual assault and harassment prosecution

A rash of high profile sexual assault incidents in the Army have led to congressional inquiries, internal reviews and now new legislation that will completely revamp the way the military handles sexual assault and harassment.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill last week that would take prosecution decisions on sexual assault and harassment cases outside the chain of command to an office of the chief prosecutor within each military service.

The move is one sexual assault victim organizations have been pushing for years.

“In the regular justice system a victim would go to the police, the police would investigate, that investigation would be turned over to a prosecutor, and they would make the decision based on the laws and facts whether or not to pursue that case,” Protect Our Defenders President Don Christensen told Federal News Network earlier this year.

In the military, the service does the investigation.

Read more: Fort Hood news

“The investigation is turned over to a commander who knows the accused,” Christensen said. “The commander makes the decision whether or not to go forward. Then the higher-up commander will make the decision if it goes to trial. None of those commanders are attorneys. They might be a pilot, an artillery officer or a surface warfare officer and they are making very complex legal decisions.”

A 2014 military report by the Response Systems to Adult Sexual Assault Crimes Panel advocated for keeping prosecutorial authority in the chain of command.

“Commanders must retain convening authority to remain credible leaders with the ability to administer justice and enforce values,” members of the panel stated in the report. “Commanders need prosecutorial discretion in order to create a command environment in which victims feel comfortable reporting crimes.”

More than 100 Democrats and Republicans in the House sponsor the bill. It also establishes a process where service members can make claims for negligence and seek compensatory damages against the Defense Department in the case of sexual assault or harassment.

DoD saw sexual assault in the military rise from nearly 15,000 in 2016, to 20,500 service members in 2018.

DoD’s 2019 annual report shows an overall increase of 3% in the number of reports filed by or about military members during 2019. That percentage is much smaller than the previous year’s jump of 13%, according to The Associated Press.

Part of the push for change has come from the death of Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen, whose body was found outside Fort Hood, Texas. Before she was killed she was a victim of sexual harassment. Since then lawmakers have been investigating sexual assault and harassment, and questioning the culture of Ft. Hood.

In July, the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee held a hearing on sexual harassment in Ft. Hood.

Command Inspector General Col. Patrick Wempe said soldiers told the office they trusted senior leaders to take sexual harassment seriously, but “the junior leaders may not have the life experience or the military experience to deal with the situation as it was presented to them.”

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