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National Defense > Blog > Posts > If You Have a ‘Secret’ Clearance, Prepare for Greater Scrutiny
If You Have a ‘Secret’ Clearance, Prepare for Greater Scrutiny
By Sandra I. Erwin

The Pentagon is wrapping up an eight-month effort to overhaul security policies to deal with “insider” threats. The focus is on trying to prevent a repeat of the Sept. 16 Washington Navy Yard shooting when a contractor employee with a secret clearance killed 12 coworkers.

An independent review in November made several proposals for improving security practices, including more frequent scrutiny of the 3.4 million population of government and contractor employees who are eligible to receive secret level clearances. It also suggested that the Pentagon should cut back on the number of clearances given, in order to keep a tighter grip.

Now comes the tough part, which is the implementation plan. The officials in charge, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers and his deputy, Marcel Lettre, are expected to present a blueprint in June to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

Navy Cmdr. Amy Derrick-Frost, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said Vickers remains “on track” to deliver a plan by mid-June.

One of Vickers’ tasks will be to figure out how to close what Hagel described as “troubling gaps” in the Defense Department’s ability to detect insider threats before it is too late.

Among the proposed fixes is to begin a program of “continuous evaluation” of everyone who has access to Defense Department facilities or classified information. Cleared personnel currently undergo reviews periodically, every five or 10 years.

Hagel said in March that one of the goals is to set up an “insider threat management and analysis center” that would perform automated record checks, connect the dots and determine whether follow-up action is needed.

To perform continuous evaluations, the Pentagon will need to expand its reach into law enforcement and other government databases, said Paul N. Stockton, co-chair of the independent review of the Washington Naval Yard shooting. A former assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, Stockton also led the review of the 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas.

Stockton is now a private industry consultant and is not involved in the implementation phase.

He said the Pentagon is going to need a more “robust” information system than it currently has in order to be able to monitor employees and identify insider threats. “We have a strong foundation on which to build” such a system, Stockton said in an interview. “The Defense Department needs to be able to access a larger number of law enforcement databases, and aggregate data in a way that helps highlight potential insider threats for further analysis.”

Much of the monitoring would be computerized, he said. “We need an automated system that accesses more law enforcement databases,” said Stockton. “And we need to ensure that the system is in full compliance with relevant guidelines for protection of privacy and civil liberties.”

Stockton suggested the Pentagon adopt some of the “best practices” that private sector firms have developed over many years in internal security. “Industry needs to have a strong voice” in the Defense Department’s implementation plan, he said.

Government contractors also have to be concerned about the possibility that their employees will receive fewer clearances under the new policy. Pentagon contractors currently hold 460,000 top-secret clearances, compared to 1.2 million held by government workers. Stockton and review co-chair retired Adm. Eric Olson recommended that the Pentagon start to draw down the number of cleared personnel by at least 10 percent. “This is simply about resources," said Stockton. "We can concentrate on a smaller body of cleared employees.”

Vickers will be looking at whether too many clearances have been awarded to people who do not really need them. The rule is that employees apply for clearances based on their “need to know” information that is classified secret. Since 9/11 the size of the cleared population has tripled, Stockton said. “Industry needs to be part of the dialogue on how we get back to the ‘need to know’ standard.”

Another change will be the consolidation of security policy under Vickers’ office. Responsibilities today are spread across many agencies.

A central question is whether Vickers will seek to end the Pentagon’s reliance on the Office of Personnel Management to conduct background investigations. The Defense Department paid OPM $698.7 million for background investigations in fiscal year 2013.

Stockton said the Defense Department should take back responsibility for investigations, not necessarily for cost reasons but for efficacy.

“I believe there are structural advantages to having the Defense Department take greater control over background investigations,” he said, “so there can be closer coordination between those who conduct the investigations and those who adjudicate security clearances based on those investigations.”

Even before the Navy Yard shooting, the role of the Office of Personnel Management in overseeing background investigations already was the target of criticism after revelations that OPM contractor USIS had screened National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden for his top-secret clearance.

Derrick-Frost said the Pentagon’s office of cost assessment and program evaluation was directed by the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act to “compare the quality, cost and timeliness of background investigations conducted by both OPM and Defense, and to identify ways to improve their transparency and cost structure.”

The results of that analysis will inform Vickers’ decisions, she said. The findings from that report are due to Congress at the end of July.

Stockton said the toughest challenge for the Defense Department might be how to handle the mental health issues associated with security clearances. The Navy Yard shooter, Aaron Alexis, had been mentally ill but “not getting the care he needed,” Stockton said. “The red flags were all out there.” A key question for the Defense Department is how it will deal with personnel who may have preexisting mental health issues.

Credit: Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel answers questions about the Navy Yard shooting on Sept. 18, 2013 (Defense Dept. photo)


Re: If You Have a ‘Secret’ Clearance, Prepare for Greater Scrutiny

DoD needs to look at the issue from the other end too.  The  more documents that get classified SECRET, the more employees need a SECRET clearance to do their jobs.  Same with computer systems access.  If you want to reduce the number of people with SECRET clearances, you have to be careful about what you slap that classification on.
Butch Meisner at 4/25/2014 10:51 AM

Re: If You Have a ‘Secret’ Clearance, Prepare for Greater Scrutiny

As a retired Navy cryptologist, and a former three-time Special Security Officer and sometime collateral Security Manager and subsequently a cleared AF support contractor, I have three decades of experience in this area.  Although I concur with the position of finding a way to better leverage and tie together data from law enforcement databases to monitor personnel security indicators, the argument that moving investigations back from OPM to DoD is specious and uniformed.  I have personally witnessed the initial move from DoD (DSS) conducting personnel security investigations to OPM having occurred because DSS lacked the resources to effectively keep up with DoD investigative requirements.  The problem is not with who conducts the investigations--although OPM was initially better staffed to conduct PSIs for both US government civilians and DoD personnel--it is that as the number of personnel purportedly requiring clearances has grown massively post 9/11, resources to support this have not increased proportionally.  I have seen frequent moratoria in the USAF on requisite TS and TS//SCI re-investigations held in abeyance due to lack of funding at end of FY.  Even though the AF has determined that they will continue to consider investigations in scope, even when the requisite re-investigation has not been initiated within the requisite window.  However, this negatively impact clearance reciprocity when such individuals have step outside of AF cognizance, and interact with personnel from the IC (Intelligence Community) or with SAPs (Special Access Programs)-- both of which I have seen not infrequently.  Cutting back on the number of personnel with security clearances is treating a symptom: it is not the root problem.  There quantity of classified information in government is excessive.  There is a need to protect state secrets in the national interest, but far too much information is classified to hide potentially embarassing or politically sensitive relationships (the latter of which makes sense internationally, but not domestically.  If such hidden relationships were to have a negative impact on international diplomatic relationships, their protection is logical.  But if such hidden relationships were to be politically unpopular only with the domestic populous of the United States, such protection is disingenuous).  The number of people currently cleared constitutes the overhead cost of protecting an excess of classified information in the United States.  I've even encountered cases of multiple classification equities, i.e., DoD and IC, both looking at the same piece of information, and classifying it differently, or one classifying it, and the other determing it should remain classified.  Although there is a process for resolving conflicting classification equities--the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) is the route--it is considered a sign of political shame and failure to use them.
Bob Szekely at 4/25/2014 11:08 AM

Re: If You Have a ‘Secret’ Clearance, Prepare for Greater Scrutiny

As a retired soldier and Army civilian I have for 45 yrs worked as a CI Agent (conducting PSI's), Special Security Officer, personnel security specialist, collateral security manager both as a military member and as a civilian employee.  I have observed and often provided comment to senior military and civilian officials regarding the continued degradation of the PSI process used to get a security clearance as well as the process of continuing evaluation of personnel holding security clearances from 'S' to 'TS SCI'. Over the yrs due to increases in the number of clearances required and reductions in funding to the agencies tasked to perform the necessary investigations the actual process of the PSI has been diminished to the point that all that is occurring is a telephonic PSI.  No longer are the investigators getting out and talking to the people that know the subject the best, ie, teachers, professors, counselors, neighbors, school mates, fellow club members, Ministers, Pastors, Rabbis and Priests etc.  In other words the investigators aren't really following leads to their end.  They essentially get on a phone and ask a list of canned questions rarely creating a dialogue with the interviewee.  The reason for this is it takes time.  Sometime it requires more than one visit.  But it's necessary if U truly want to find out about the character, reliability, responsibility, and trustworthiness of an individual.  The problem is that a given investigating agent is required to hit his numbers, move as many cases as possible rather than ensuring the quality and completeness of an investigation.  Reducing the number of clearances issued will do little to fix the problem if the integrity of the PSI process is not returned to at least what it was in the 60's.  Phone calls and

Additionally the classification of material needs serious review and revision.  There is frequently considerable difference between what and how the different military services, Army, AF, Navy, Marines and CIA, DIA or NSA classify the same material.  Whether it is their particular service perspective or emphasis they feel needs to be put on the need for secrecy of a given subject matter.  There needs to be unity of classification across the DoD at a minimum.  The current process for resolving conflicting classification equities with the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel needs to be used more frequently and possibly streamlined some to make the process more timely.
Doug Smith at 4/28/2014 11:19 AM

Re: If You Have a ‘Secret’ Clearance, Prepare for Greater Scrutiny

Also, aren't clearances to get access to certain physical locations, such as the Navy Yard and Ft. Hood-- and authorization to go armed onto those locations-- different from obtaining clearances to read or know classified information?  It seems that very different categories of personnel might require physical access and some may even require physical access in an armed capacity (such as security guards) but those personnel wouldn't require a "security clearance" to read/know classified intelligence.  Apples and oranges.  The danger of more Ft. Hood and Navy Yard type mass shootings doesn't seem to have much to do with getting a security clearance to read/learn about classified material.  Rather, the type of "insider threat" that would involve access to classified material seems geared to Edward Snowden type whistleblowers rather than Navy Yard shooters.
Coleen Rowley at 4/28/2014 11:21 AM

Re: If You Have a ‘Secret’ Clearance, Prepare for Greater Scrutiny

I'm a long time Air Force civil service type.  I have a SECRET clearance I got soon after going to work for the Air Force in 1981.  Actually, I'm proud to have the clearance.  I worked at Hill AFB for 16 years, during which time I read a SECRET letter, reviewed a SECRET Tech Order, visited simulators and aircraft several times and saw SECRET equipment, and once had access to a safe with SECRET material stored in it.  I spent two years at F.E. Warren AFB and visited missile silos, launch control facilities, a simulator, and the nuclear weapons storage facility.  Now, I am at Peterson AFB, where I've been for 14 years, and have never needed my clearance.  I'll be retiring in 4-5 years, but my clearance will expire in 2-3, so I will have to renew it.  I suspect my story is not uncommon: one job where I really needed the clearance, one job where I used it rarely, and a job (several jobs, really) where I never needed it, but might possibly one day.  Based on this experience, I would agree that we could cut back on our security clearances. 
David Edgington at 4/30/2014 11:04 AM

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