In just a few months beginning mid-2013, the American people’s confidence in the federal government’s ability to administer security clearances was upended.
First, cleared contractor Edward Snowden leaked thousands of pages of classified data on the National Security Agency’s surveillance activities. Then contractor Aaron Alexis fatally shot 12 people at one of the most protected government facilities in the country: the Washington Navy Yard. Alexis had a security clearance despite several potential red flags, including a history of mental health problems.
In the year since Alexis’ shooting rampage lawmakers have been practically stepping on each other’s toes with proposals to fix the security clearance process. Bills have been unveiled, investigations launched, commissions formed, recommendations released and processes reformed. Still, government leaders lack a uniform vision for reform, and the one common refrain from the president to law enforcement officials to members of Congress is that more work remains.
Obama has signed into law two proposals stemming from the post-Snowden, post-Alexis era.
The first was the fiscal 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, which established a task force to enhance coordination and cooperation among federal background checkers and state and local authorities. The task force issued recommendations to improve information sharing, but those recommendations have yet to be put into practice.
In February, Obama signed into law an act that allowed the Office of Personnel Management’s inspector general to use its revolving fund to investigate cases in which the integrity of a background check may have been compromised. That reform, which cleared both chambers of Congress unanimously, was designed to give OPM — the agency which since 2004 has maintained primary responsibility for doling out security clearances — more oversight authority over its own investigations.
Lawmakers viewed those changes as starting points, not solutions. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who sponsored the OPM IG Act and has championed security clearance reform, continues to look for ways to attack the problem.