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Davis Urges Additional Funds for Security Clearance Agency

Concerned lawmakers recently intervened on behalf of the Defense Security Service, which has taken a lot of heat for serious backlogs in the processing of security clearance applications. Stepped-up funding and improved processing operations are necessary to provide relief for industry, which is struggling to hire enough personnel to begin and/or continue government contracting work, according to some members of Congress.

Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) recently nudged Defense Secretary Robert Gates to provide information necessary to increase DSS funding. DSS needs more than $20 million to make necessary improvements to speed up the security clearance credentialing process, according to a senior committee staff member.

Expediting this process is absolutely crucial to industry, the staff member continued. “Firms bid against each other to hire and warehouse cleared people they can represent in bid documents for work the firms intend to start immediately. The shortage of cleared personnel means work gets delayed,” the staff member said.

Davis hammered that message in his letter to Gates. “Any spike in applications would both surprise and paralyze DSS, because the Department still has no reliable system to anticipate, much less meet, contractor clearance requirements,” wrote Davis in the May letter, which stressed to Gates the importance of having DSS provide an overdue budget report to the congressional committee. DSS should have delivered that information by December 29, 2006, according to Davis.

Davis said he was pressing DSS for the information, so the Committee could move forward on budget decisions that will impact the security clearance process. Without the information, Congress cannot address the “dangerous, systemic weaknesses in the current system,” the letter continued. Davis’ letter can be found at http://tomdavis.house.gov/davis_contents/news/PRArticle.aspx?NewsID=20.

A DSS spokeswoman confirmed that the agency has since submitted the information called for in the Davis letter. That information serves as a prerequisite to “reprogramming” funds to address identified issues with the security clearance process, said a DSS spokeswoman. She said the agency is looking for about $25 million in the coming fiscal year.

Meanwhile, other congressional members are speaking out on the mounting problems industry must now endure. “We’ve had several contractors in our district come to our office seeking assistance in addressing the delays. Many of these companies are small Defense contractors that are losing contracts due to this,” said a spokeswoman for Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations.

The Office of Personnel Management also came under fire once again for security clearance processing bottlenecks. OPM is responsible for the investigation of individuals seeking security clearances, while DSS is the agency tasked with the intake and adjudication of applications.

The General Accountability Office in recent congressional testimony revisited concerns included in a fall 2006 report titled “DOD Personnel Clearances: Delays and Inadequate Documentation Found for Industry Personnel.” 

GAO’s Director of Defense Capabilities and Management, Derek Stewart in mid-May cited that report’s findings when he testified before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs’ Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia. Derek’s testimony is available at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d07842t.pdf.

Specifically, Derek drew the Subcommittee members’ attention to the fact that GAO had earlier found that vendors contracted to complete work for the federal government endured wait times of more than a year on applications seeking top secret clearances for select personnel. 

In the report – which was issued in September 2006 -- GAO examined just over 2,000 cases and found that companies wait about 446 days in total for clearances. GAO broke down the averaged figures and found that the application-submission phase of the process took about 111 days – far in excess of the government’s goal of 14 days.

Since GAO issued the report, OPM has made many improvements, said Kathy Dillaman, OPM Associate Director, Federal Investigative Services Division. “In order to speed up the process of background investigations, OPM is maintaining a sufficient staff level of federal and contract staff needed to process 1.8 million background investigations this year. That includes almost 600,000 investigations that may be used for initial clearance determinations,” she said.

Dillaman said her agency has also responded to GAO’s finding that OPM had not incorporated technology capable of expediting the processing of clearance processing. “We are investing in technology to streamline and speed up the process of conducting these investigations, including the capability to both receive requests from the employing agencies electronically and return the completed investigation to them in an electronic format,” she said, emphasizing the fact that these systems will significantly cut down mail and handling time.

Overall, OPM has stepped up its game and is processing applications now at a much higher rate – as compared with the rates GAO reported in late 2006, Dillaman continued. “Currently, over 80 percent of all applications for initial security clearance investigations received this fiscal year are being processed to completion in an average of well under 90 days,” she said.

Most agree that steady improvements and proper funding will remain crucial for both OPM and DSS. Equally important is proper funding, continued the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform staff member. “Otherwise, DSS – just with its steady state of applications and without any spike in requests – runs the risk of having to shut down the contractor application window again,” the staff member said, alluding to last year’s moratorium. DSS from April until July 2006 suspended processing of industry-submitted security clearance applications altogether, due to serious backlogs. “It could be Déjà vu allover again,” the staffer warned.
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