With Edward Snowden threatening to take national security secrets with him into asylum, a bipartisan group of Senators today introduced legislation to increase oversight over how the government conducts background investigations and awards security clearances, while also holding government employees and contractors more accountable for falsifying investigations.
Senators Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) are teaming up to introduce the Security Clearance Oversight and Reform Enhancement (SCORE) Act. The bill improves oversight of the security clearance process, calls for the government to fire background check investigators and suspend others - including contractors - who falsify reports, and forces the government to update its policy determining which positions require a security clearance.
The bipartisan bill is a product of the four Senators' recent joint Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing that revealed that the contractor who conducted Snowden's background check is under investigation.
"Recent events force us to take a close look at what the federal government is doing in the name of national security and how well we are protecting classified information," said Tester, Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Federal Programs and the Federal Workforce. "Taxpayers are footing the bill for these programs and we need to make sure they are meeting the expectations of the American people. This bill gives investigators the tools they need to hold folks accountable and protect our national security."
"With the kind of threats America faces, we need to be sure that the folks trusted with access to classified information have been thoroughly vetted," said McCaskill, Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Financial & Contracting Oversight. "Private contractors are doing a huge bulk of these background checks, and it's nothing short of a national security threat if they're not conducting those checks with the care and attention needed. These new safeguards can bolster accountability, and go a long way to restore Americans' trust in this area of our national security."
"Performed well, the security clearance process should not only ensure our nation's most valuable information is protected, but also ensure that we have the necessary personnel to conduct the duties we need to protect the country. Done poorly, we run the risk of damaging leaks or hamstringing our Agencies' abilities to fulfill their missions," said Portman. "As we've seen in the recent cases of Edward Snowden and the falsification of OPM investigations, we must have an effective background investigation process. While much attention has been paid in recent years to timeliness, this bill will bring much-needed oversight to the security clearance process in order to address many of the long-term concerns regarding the effectiveness and efficiency of this process."
"The process for granting security clearances across the federal government is broken," Johnson said. "In conducting oversight of the process, we learned there is no government-wide standard for granting security clearances. We also learned that some government employees and contractors tasked with conducting background checks on those that will be entrusted with our national's secrets have fabricated the investigations. This means that security clearances have been granted and classified information is being handled by individuals that haven't received appropriate scrutiny. This legislation instructs the Director of National Intelligence to issue such guidance across the federal government within 180 days. And, if a government employee or contractor is found to have falsified a background check, they will be terminated or debarred. This is just common sense."
During the Senators' June hearing, witnesses testified that a lack of oversight and information sharing threatened the security of classified information. In response, the Senators' bill will empower the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to use resources from its Revolving Fund to audit and investigate contractors that conduct background checks. The hearing also revealed that OPM has yet to fully exercise its authority to terminate or debar investigators and others found to have falsified background investigations. The bill requires OPM to remove those investigators from further investigations.
The four Senators also sent a letter to Government Accountability Office (GAO) Comptroller General Gene Dodaro requesting that the GAO examine the security clearance process and report how various federal agencies can streamline and improve clearance investigations.
Tester and McCaskill chair Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittees that oversee the federal workforce and federal contractors respectively. Portman and Johnson are the panels' ranking members.