- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 6, 2019

There was a backlog of about 565,000 federal background security investigations as of last month, according to a report released Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office that details various “high-risk” areas across the federal government.

The government-wide security clearance process was a new addition to GAO’s list of “high-risk” areas in its report for 2019, since the agency’s last report two years ago.

The percentage of executive branch agencies meeting timeliness goals for initial secret clearances, initial top secret clearances, and periodic reinvestigations decreased each year between 2012 and 2018, GAO found.

And 97 percent of executive branch agencies auditors surveyed in fiscal year 2018 did not meet timeliness goals for initial secret clearance investigations, auditors said.

“They don’t have a plan for meeting their timeliness objectives for their investigations moving forward,” said Cathleen Berrick with GAO. “They’ve made some tweaks here and there, but they really need a comprehensive plan.”

Ms. Berrick was speaking at a Senate hearing on GAO’s 2019 report on “high risk” areas in the federal government that are prone to waste, fraud, or abuse.

The federal government is planning to transfer the background check investigation program run by the National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB) from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to the Defense Department.

That transfer is supposed to occur by Sept. 30, Ms. Berrick said.

“It’s moving, but there [are] still a lot of issues that need to be dealt with,” said U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro.

The report did indicate some progress has been made. The backlog of background investigations actually decreased from almost 715,000 cases in January 2018 to about 565,000 cases in February 2019 after the administration issued an executive memorandum in June aimed at reducing the investigation backlog.

Ms. Berrick also noted the recent announcement of the “Trusted Workforce 2.0” initiative, which is aimed at a broader overhaul of the security clearance process.

She said that strategy involves “continuous vetting” and that there are some “key process improvements.”

But she also said the timeliness issues on conducting the background checks remain.

“There [are] some plans in place, but this issue has always been one of implementation,” she said. “The problem has always been the coordination among the agencies and actually executing on these plans.”

GAO initially flagged the personnel security clearance process as a high-risk area in January 2018, but typically only issues its complete “high risk” report every two years.

Government security clearances have been a major focus of Congress recently.

The White House recently indicated it would not comply with the House oversight committee’s request for documents tied to alleged abuses in the security clearance process on behalf of staffers such as Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law.

GAO also added acquisition management in the Department of Veterans Affairs to its high-risk list for 2019.

Other areas that need “especially focused executive and congressional attention” include the 2020 Census and VA health care, GAO said.

GAO removed Defense Department supply chain management and weather satellite data issues from the list for 2019, citing improvement in those areas since its last report.

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