A long path ahead on security clearance reform

By all accounts, the law enforcement response to what turned out to have been a false alarm at the Washington Navy Yard last week was quite different than the actual active shooter situation in 2013: Law enforcement agencies were able to readily communicate with one another, a unified command was set up right away and first responders had no trouble entering the base’s gates.

But when it comes to another key lesson from the 2013 tragedy — the need to improve the security clearance process — the government still has a long road ahead.

A new report from the Office of Management and Budget makes clear that agencies won’t transition to a system of continuous evaluation (CE) for clearance holders for several more years, and important deadlines for the accelerated implementation have already been missed.

In fairness, there has been some progress: The government has successfully finished a proof of concept pilot using 100,000 DoD clearance holders as the test population according to the report, which was first brought to our attention by the Federation of American Scientists.

But that’s out of a total pool of 4.5 million secret and top secret clearance holders across the government. It will take until the end of 2016 to expand the continuous evaluation program to 500,000 users and until the end of 2017 before it reaches 1 million.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has been tasked with transitioning all top secret clearance holders to the CE process and is on track to do so by the end of 2016. But ODNI missed a December 2014 deadline to transition the government’s “most sensitive” personnel to CE.

The continuous evaluation process aims to monitor personnel for “indicators” of potential unsuitability for a security clearance on an ongoing basis, replacing the current process of background investigations, which evaluate secret clearance holders just once per decade and twice as often for top secret personnel.

Reviews of the 2013 Navy Yard shooting found that gunman Aaron Alexis got his contractor job at the facility based on an existing security clearance, but that he had been involved in multiple firearms incidents and been disciplined for personal misconduct since his last background investigation.

The Navy Yard shooting, together with the Edward Snowden disclosures, added urgency to overhauling the government’s capacity to detect insider threats: The OMB report came in the context of an update on security clearance and insider threat reform, one of seven of the White House’s “mission-oriented” cross agency priority goals.

But the government also missed a January 2015 deadline to create the basic “establishment criteria” for a governmentwide insider threat program, according to the report, which attributes the failure to “issues such as organizational culture, legal questions, and resource identification.”

The National Insider Threat Task Force is working to address those issues “as quickly as possible” and hopes to achieve initial operating capability by the end of 2015, and full operational capability by the end of 2016, according to a footnote in the report.

This article is part of Federal News Radio’s weekly Inside the Reporter’s Notebook feature. Read more from this week’s Notebook.

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