Changes in Security Clearance System Coming After Navy Yard Shooting, Snowden

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), a former attorney general, said she found it “incredibly shocking” that OPM would not pursue a police report in any of these arrest situations.

“The nature of the charge, looking at the underlying police report, can tell us very different information,” Ayotte said. “And a prosecutor may not have the elements to make a particular charge and the disposition may tell us nothing, but seeing a prior behavior here with Aaron Alexis, getting a police report would have flagged a very different set of conduct for anyone looking at that.”

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said there are two problems with the security clearance process: too much stuff that does not need to be classified and too many approved security clearances.

“If you markedly increase the amount of material that doesn't need to be classified, you have to increase the number of people that need to have access to it,” he said. “We need to address both problems."

Brenda Farrell, director of Defense Capabilities at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), said a 2012 report found that government agencies had problems determining which positions need security clearances.

She noted that the security clearance only follows the position and not the person, so federal agencies must continuously validate whether a position should have access to classified information in order to tackle any problems of over-classification.

“If you over-classify, then you over-classify positions, starting the snowball effect of having 5 million people who have clearances now,” she said.

Multiple federal agencies are responsible for different steps of the security clearance process. Federal agencies determine which of their positions require access to classified information and which employees must apply and undergo a clearance investigation.

Investigators, often contractors for OPM, conduct these investigations for most of the government. OPM provides a report of the investigation to the requesting agency for their internal adjudicators to make a decision whether or not the person is eligible to hold a clearance.

The GAO has estimated that 87 percent of 3,500 investigative reports that DOD adjudicators used to make clearance eligibility decisions were missing some required information. The agency has also estimated that about 12 percent of the 3,500 reports did not contain the mandatory subject interview.

The GAO released a report on Thursday that found that thousands of federal employees and contractors approved for security clearances owed $85 million in back taxes as of June 2012. Approximately 4,700 of those owing money were federal employees, while the remainder were contractors.

The fact that many of these people received security clearances makes it obvious the system is broken, Coburn said.

A bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill this week to require more frequent checks on government employees and contractors who are awarded security clearances.

The legislation requires OPM to do at least two audits of every security clearance at random times over each five years the clearance is active.