- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 12, 2008


President Bush wants his top officials to plan a complete overhaul of how the U.S. government does background checks and grants security clearances for employees and contractors who need access to classified information.

“I have determined that [there are] significant opportunities to improve these processes,” Mr. Bush wrote in a memo to agency heads, calling for “aggressive efforts to achieve meaningful and lasting reform.”

The directive is the latest White House effort to address a problem that has plagued successive administrations, but which has been especially severe since the huge expansion of U.S. intelligence agencies and contractors after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“Long-standing practices used in the security processing of individuals and contractors to work for the government pose challenges to the speed with which these individuals can begin their work or move from one role to another,” the memo said.

The length of time it takes for the background investigation and security adjudication needed for a clearance is the stuff of Beltway legend and has led military and intelligence contractors in the Washington region to offer large bonuses to recruit and retain employees who have them.

The White House Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which has charge of investigations for security clearances, said that processing from start to finish now takes less than 200 days in most cases.

Mr. Bush’s memo, issued last week, puts the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in charge of drafting “a comprehensive reform proposal” by April. The OMB and OPM directors are to work with the national security adviser, the director of national intelligence and the secretary of defense.

They are to produce “proposed executive and legislative actions to achieve the goals of reform … followed promptly by any additional proposals this group believes necessary to fulfill its mission.”

Lawmakers on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has held hearings on the issue, said they were hopeful about the initiative.

“The president’s memo fully puts the weight of the White House behind the … reform effort,” said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, the committee’s ranking Republican, noting that it had been “under way for some time.”

The OMB director “is in charge now of what was an unusually collaborative but still leaderless interagency team,” Mr. Davis said.

The president’s memo directs development of common standards for investigations and record-keeping, so information can be shared quickly across the federal government and can be used for multiple purposes, such as the background checks or “suitability investigations” conducted on all federal hires and the much more detailed investigations performed for security clearances.

Congressional officials said concern has arisen in some quarters of U.S. intelligence about that sort of efficiency.

Skeptical counterintelligence veterans point to the recent case of a woman who was granted a secret clearance, first by the FBI and then by the CIA, and later turned out to have naturalized herself fraudulently by means of a bogus marriage.

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