- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 7, 2014

Just how daunting a battle it can be to reform a bureaucracy as large and as stubborn as the Department of Defense can be seen in the survival of a secretive club whose membership comprises boards that handle security clearances.

Over four years ago, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates appeared before the press to ballyhoo a number of reforms to make the 23,000-worker Pentagon, as well as military commands, more efficient. One of his orders was to consolidate into one the separate Personnel Security Appeals Boards inside the Army, Air Force and Navy.

Today, the three boards still exist, hearing cases from personnel either denied a clearance for classified information or who had one taken away.

Defense civilians have tried to impose Mr. Gates‘ vision, but the military has erected formidable obstacles that might be admired by a battlefield commander executing a blocking maneuver on the enemy.

The Army, Air Force and Navy have defied their civilian masters by citing legal issues, the need for more review and what some insiders see as a unique argument that the defense secretary does not have the power to tell them what to do.

Dakota Wood, a military analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said he is not surprised at the lack of follow-through given that Mr. Gates left the building a short time later in July 2011.

“The point here is that big changes in large bureaucracies require constant top-level attention to come to fruition,” said Mr. Wood, a retired Marine Corps officer and former Pentagon strategist. “Any meaningful change requires time, personal attention from the most senior levels, legal authority and an ability to hold people accountable.”

In August 2010 Mr. Gates appeared in the Pentagon press room to announce a series of efficiency measures to cut staffs and end overlapping activities — all aimed at saving $100 billion by 2016.

“I concluded that our headquarters and support bureaucracies, military and civilian alike, have swelled to cumbersome and top-heavy proportions,” he said, claiming that swelling post-9/11 defense budgets had created a culture of excess.

He specifically targeted intelligence spending for “needless duplication” — like those three PSABs.

A few months later Mr. Gates put his words into action by signing a memo ordering the military branches to relinquish their own PSABs and to let one centralized panel hear all cases. It must be done, he said, by Sept. 30, 2011.

It was not.

With Mr. Gates‘ exit came Leon Panetta and then Chuck Hagel, men with their own sets of priorities.

Today, the Government Accountability Office delivers a mixed report card on the Gates agenda. Mr. Gates did achieve his marquee item: the elimination of U.S. Joint Forces Command in 2011.

But the GAO said earlier this year that the military used “ad hoc” methods rather than systematic ones to determine whether new efficiencies occurred. There has been limited follow-up by the successor defense secretaries’ staffs.

This perhaps explains the survival of three PSABs, where one would do, in Mr. Gates‘ opinion.

In the wake of the Navy Yard massacre, in which the shooter held a security clearance despite his checkered resume, the GAO this summer took a look at the process for awarding and taking away access to bases and to classified information.

Buried inside its final Sept. 8 report are a few pages devoted to the drama of the PSABs and how they have survived.

It reads like a lesson in how a bureaucracy resists change while stopping short of outright insubordination:

The Navy PSAB staff said it had not dissolved because it never received guidance to do so from the Defense Legal Services Agency.

The Army said it never received direction from the undersecretary of defense for intelligence.

The Army and Air Force said Mr. Gates‘ order was “not consistent” with a previous executive order. That order said an employee who has a security clearance revoked is entitled to a hearing before a panel appointed by an agency head. They interpreted this to mean the secretaries of the Army, Air Force or Navy.

Air Force PSAB staff complained that Mr. Gates did not provide service secretaries the opportunity to comment on his order beforehand. They said consolidation “would neither enhance due process nor national security.”

All three branches said they require their own boards, because each has unique classified programs and knows what types of personnel it needs.

The military’s argument that Mr. Gates lacked the authority to banish their boards is rebutted by the GAO. Its report said the previous executive order talks of agency heads appointing the boards. Agency heads include the secretary of defense, not just service secretaries, the GAO said, so he does have the needed authority.

The GAO also said, though not in so many words, that the secretary of defense is the boss and can tell service secretaries what to do.

The Pentagon press office did not reply to questions submitted by The Washington Times.

The impasse will likely continue. The Army has suggested a working group be set up to study Mr. Gates‘ order — nearly four years later. That process could take years more.

In his best-selling memoir “Duty,” Mr. Gates wrote of his mindset on Aug. 9, 2010, when he met the press to talk about making the Pentagon run better:

“What I very much wanted to do was cut bureaucratic overhead and invest the money thus saved in additional and new military capabilities. I continued to hope, as pressures to cut the federal budget deficit built, that if the department operated in this manner, we could avoid the kind of drastic reductions in defense spending that had followed the Vietnam War and the end of the Cold War.”

Said Heritage’s Mr. Wood, “Long-serving permanent GS [general schedule] and SES [senior executive service] personnel can always outlast a political appointee.”

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