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GAO: Thousands of tax deadbeats hold security clearances

Thousands of tax deadbeats exist among the ranks of federal employees and contractors holding national security clearances, but officials have few good ways of finding out about the delinquencies, a government report said Thursday.

The Government Accountability Office found that more than 8,000 people holding clearances, which provide access to privileged government information, owed a combined $85 million in overdue federal taxes.

The findings further stoked fears on Capitol Hill that employees and contractors facing financial troubles could be more prone to blackmail or taking a bribe to sell national secrets.

"Giving security clearances to individuals that fail to follow the law is unwise and unnecessarily puts our nation's classified information at risk," said Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican and ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The GAO also found there's no process for detecting federal tax debts after someone receives a clearance. Among the few ways of being tipped off would be if clearance holders self-report the debt.

Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican, called the report "evidence of the weaknesses in our security clearance process."

Currently, 4.9 million employees and contractors have clearances. Out of 240,000 who received a clearance between April 2006 and Dec. 31, 2011, 8,400 owed federal taxes, according to GAO.

The GAO findings come at a time of heightened concern about the adequacy of government background checks, following disclosures that Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis received a clearance in 2007 despite an arrest record and red flags about mental illness.

Elaine Kaplan, acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees government background checks, told the committee at a hearing Thursday that the background check on Alexis complied with investigative standards.

She said, however, the Alexis case raised questions about whether investigative standards were "up to snuff."

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