WASHINGTON — The Defense Department is poised to take over background investigations for the federal government, using increased automation and high-tech analysis to tighten controls and tackle an enormous backlog of workers waiting for security clearances, according to U.S. officials.
The change aims to fix a system whose weaknesses were exposed by the case of a Navy contractor who gunned down a dozen people at Washington’s Navy Yard in 2013. He was able to maintain a security clearance despite concerns about his mental health and an arrest that investigators never reviewed.
Problems had earlier surfaced with former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who now lives in Russia to avoid charges for disclosing classified material, and Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning, who went to prison for leaking classified documents, triggering calls to update the antiquated system to include more frequent criminal and financial checks of workers who have security clearances.
Another problem has been delays: a backlog of about 700,000 people, including high-ranking federal officials waiting as much as a year to get clearances. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, for example, received his permanent clearance just a few weeks ago, more than 16 months after Trump took office. The delay, his lawyer said, was caused by the backlog in the new administration and Kushner’s extensive financial wealth, which required lengthy review.
Pentagon officials said that over the next three years, the Defense Department will take responsibility for all background investigations involving its military and civilian employees and contractors. But according to a U.S. official, the White House is expected to soon give the department authority to conduct security reviews for nearly all other government agencies as well. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the decision before it was publicly announced.
Plans to transfer responsibility from the Office of Personnel Management to the Pentagon for all of the roughly 3.6 million Pentagon employees, directed by defense legislation for fiscal 2017, are already in the works. The new program will involve a system of continuous checks that will automatically pull and analyze workers’ criminal, financial, substance abuse and eventually social media data on a more regular basis, rather than only every five or 10 years as it is done now.
Garry Reid, director for defense intelligence, said the shift of responsibility to the Pentagon will allow OPM officials to begin eating away at the current backlog of about 700,000, of which roughly 500,000 are Defense Department workers. The Pentagon won’t take over any of the backlogged cases because they are already underway in OPM.
While the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is the executive agent for the program, and sets the guidelines for the security requirements based on federal investigative guidelines. OPM and the Pentagon carry out the vetting process, working with the DNI.
Bill Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said at his confirmation hearing last month that by mid-June the national intelligence director would issue guidance to departments and agencies to update 2012 federal investigative standards used to vet for security clearances. He said the government also was working on ways to allow contractors and federal workers to move more seamlessly between the private sector and government without having to get new clearances.
Evanina said changes could result in a 20 percent reduction in the backlog within six months.
In the first year, the Pentagon will take over investigations for those seeking a renewal of their secret clearance, then over the next two years will take on those seeking their initial secret clearance and then move to employees seeking top secret renewals and initial clearances, said Reid, in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
According to Reid, about 20 people are already on board setting up the program and 350 more will be hired in the coming months.
It will cost an additional $40 million for fiscal year 2019. But over time, he said, the department expects to spend “significantly less” than the current $1.3 billion price tag for the program because of the increased automation and other savings.
A key problem contributing to the backlog is that field investigations into workers seeking security clearances can take up to 500 days, as investigators scour records and conduct interviews with neighbors and other acquaintances of the employee.
An analysis of the process, said Reid, found that 50 percent of the investigators’ workloads involves tasks such as driving around the country, finding sources and looking for people to talk to about the employees.
Using more automated and continuous checks, he said, “can find out that same information that’s taking hundreds of days and frankly a billion dollars a year to do, and collect similar information.”
As an example, he said an automated check could reveal information in the national criminal database about an incident that wasn’t otherwise reported or communicated between a local law enforcement agency and the military.
Carrie L. Wibben, the Pentagon’s director of counterintelligence and security, said that as a result, the department is discovering problems years before investigators would have turned them up in regularly scheduled five or 10-year checks.
Workers with secret clearance are re-evaluated every 10 years, and those with top secret clearances are checked every five years.
She also said that through advanced technology, the department will be able to determine specific risk factors for workers based on their histories, and then set up automatic checks and analyses to watch for problems. For example, an employee who had some minor financial problems might get their credit checked more frequently.
Already the department has started the continuous evaluation process for about 1.1 million employees, and since January, 58 workers have had their security clearances revoked.
While social media can provide a massive amount of information about people, it also presents a challenge.
Wibben said the department has done pilot programs to assess the value, but so far she said the Pentagon is not scouring workers’ social media accounts for information.
“The challenge of social media in general is the fidelity of it — you can’t believe everything you read on the internet,” said Reid, adding that researching everyone’s internet postings would be wasteful and erroneous. “So we have the authority, frankly, to do more, but to make it effective is something we’re still really researching.”
Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.