EXCLUSIVE: Top secret clearances flawed at Pentagon

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EXCLUSIVE:

The Pentagon may have issued top-secret clearances last year to as many as one-in-four applicants who had “significant derogatory information” in their backgrounds, including a record of foreign influence or criminal conduct, a little- noticed government audit says.

Flaws in the system for granting clearances to Defense Department staff and contractors pose a risk to national security, and the right tools to measure how well the process works are essential, said Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, California Democrat and chairman of a House intelligence subcommittee that oversees personnel and management issues.

“At present, we’re basically operating on faith. This shouldn’t be a faith-based process,” Ms. Eshoo told The Washington Times.

Ms. Eshoo was responding to an audit published last month by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warning one in four top-secret clearances issued by the Pentagon last year had no record of why officials had approved the applicant despite “significant derogatory information” that raised security concerns - most frequently about foreign influence or criminal conduct.

The audit also found that nearly nine in 10 new top-secret clearances last year were granted even though background investigation files on the applicant “were missing at least one type of documentation,” most often employment verification.

The Pentagon granted more than 450,000 initial security clearances, and another 180,000 renewals, to military personnel, civilian employees and private contractors last year, based on the results of background investigations conducted by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

Auditors reached their conclusions by examining a random sample of 3,500 files on top-secret clearances granted in July last year.

GAO auditors said their report concentrated on top-secret clearances because people with them “have access to information that, if improperly disclosed, could cause exceptionally grave damage to national security.”

The risks inherent in granting security clearances to the wrong people are illustrated by the case of Noureddine Malki, a naturalized U.S. citizen who worked as a contract translator for the U.S. military in Iraq. Last year, Malki was sentenced to 10 years in prison and stripped of his citizenship after pleading guilty of lying about his background, biography and even his name in his applications for citizenship and later a top-secret security clearance.

Prosecutors said Malki had taken home classified documents about the insurgency in Iraq, and had been in “unauthorized phone and e-mail contact … with Sunni sheiks in the Sunni Triangle - individuals from whom the defendant admitted taking bribes,” according to a Feb. 7, 2007, pretrial memorandum.

Retired Gen. James Clapper, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, accepted the GAO report and agreed to implement a series of reforms it recommended.

The audit, he said, “provide* an adequate assessment of the department’s personnel security program.”

Rebecca Allen, deputy director of security for the Pentagon, told The Times that the fact that the rationale for granting a clearance was not recorded did not mean a poor decision had been made. “This appears to be more an issue of documentation,” she said.

“We’re confident in our risk-management-based approach,” she said, adding that adjudicators who decide whether to grant a clearance used “a whole-person concept. They consider favorable and unfavorable information from the past and the present and make decisions on a case-by-case basis.”

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