US intelligence revamping security clearance process

Automated background checks, revamped investigations and "continuous evaluation" of security clearance holders are all part of the U.S. intelligence community's effort to retool how it picks which individuals have access to the country's national security secrets. 

"Although these efforts are still a work in progress, when mature, they will mitigate many of these gaps and enhance the nation's security posture," Brian Prioletti, assistant director for the Special Security Directorate at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told lawmakers Thursday. 

Prioletti, along with officials from the White House, Pentagon and Government Accountability Office, testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee on possible changes to the federal security clearance process. 

Thursday's hearing was prompted by congressional outcry over why former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden and Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis were granted security clearances by intelligence officials. 

Snowden illegally obtained reams of classified information on the agency's domestic intelligence operations during his time as a contractor, leaking that information to various media outlets. 

Alexis used his clearance to gain access to the Navy's Washington, D.C., headquarters at the Navy Yard, where he killed 13 people during a shooting spree at the facility. 

"Many national security experts have long argued the security clearance process is antiquated and in need of modernization. And, given recent events, I think we have to ask whether the system is fundamentally flawed," panel Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) said Thursday.

Aside from modernizing the clearance process itself, Carper expressed concern the demand for cleared personnel is pressuring government investigators "to sacrifice quality for speed," he added. 

That pressure has forced the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the main agency overseeing the clearance process, to outsource investigations to private security firms. 

While the majority of security clearance checks are conducted by government employees, a fair share of those investigations for military or national security positions are handled "by a mix of government employees and [private] contractors," a Pentagon official told reporters in September, shortly after the shootings. 

On Wednesday, the Justice Department announced it was joining a lawsuit against security contractor United States Investigations Services (USIS), the firm that conducted the background check of NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

The lawsuit, filed by a whistle-blower, alleges USIS charged the federal government for reviews of background checks that it knew weren’t performed properly.

Prioletti did not comment on the USIS lawsuit during Thursday's hearing, opting to focus on the Pentagon and intelligence community's efforts to close critical gaps in the clearance process. 

Prioletti's office, in conjunction with the Pentagon's intelligence directorate and the OPM have created a working group "that is developing common standards and metrics to evaluate background [clearance] investigations for quality and comprehensiveness," he told lawmakers. 

"As envisioned ...  the reformed security clearance process includes automated record checks of commercial databases, government databases and other lawfully available information."

White House and intelligence officials are also implementing national training standards for government and private clearance investigators, approved by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in August  

These standards create uniform training criteria for ... background investigators, national security adjudicators and suitability adjudicators" and will be in place by 2014, Prioletti said. 

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