Citing quality concerns and a large backlog of cases, the Government Accountability Office has added the U.S. government's security clearance process to its High Risk List of federal areas that need reform or broad improvement to prevent "waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement."
The federal agency announced the change on Thursday. In a statement, Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro said that a better clearance process "is essential to minimize the risks of unauthorized disclosures of classified information and to help ensure that information about individuals with criminal histories or other questionable behavior is identified and assessed."
The GAO said, "Currently, executive branch agencies are unable to investigate and process personnel security clearances in a timely manner" — adding that there were more than 700,000 background investigation cases in the pipeline as of September 2017.
The High Risk List was started in 1990 as a way for the Government Accountability Office to emphasize areas where the government needs to improve its efficiency and effectiveness, and to prevent abuse and other problems. The list is normally updated every two years, with the next review slated to publish in early 2019 — but Dodaro said it was important to call attention to the problems now.
It's not the first time the U.S. government's personnel security clearance process has been put on the High Risk List. The most recent years, the GAO says, were in 2005 and 2007, when the agency cited slowness at the Department of Defense (in 2005) and quality issues at both the Office of Personnel Management and the DoD (in 2007). The security clearance process was removed from the list in 2011. The new warning applies government-wide.
The GAO says the U.S. hasn't made enough progress in the speed at which it can carry out a clearance check, despite efforts at reform. Broad standards to measure the quality of background investigations have also not been established, it said.
The GAO is "an independent and nonpartisan agency that works for Congress," as its website states.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence who requested two recent GAO studies of the U.S. security clearance process, says that the current system is broken.
"The current process to grant clearances to government personnel and contractors, born 70 years ago, takes too long, costs too much, and is too complex," Warner said. He said that the system is "a disservice to the people who support critical national security functions, and it is a disservice to the American people."
Those studies highlighted several issues with the security system, including concerns at the Department of Defense about a new computer system to handle the personnel security clearance process — and how that system ties in to the Office of Personnel Management's legacy systems.
Warner said that he has sent a letter to Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, requesting that the Trump administration gets enough funding to help departments and agencies conduct background investigations.