Government’s Security Clearance Process is “High Risk”

High Risk MedallionOur High Risk List pulls together all the government programs that we consider at high risk to waste, fraud, abuse, mismanagement, or in need of transformation.

We were planning to update this list in early 2019 but made an exception this month—we just added the federal government’s process for conducting personnel security clearances to it.

We had DOD’s personnel security clearance process as a high-risk area in the past and progress was made, leading us to remove it in 2011. But now new challenges have increased the risks, so we are adding the government-wide process back to the list now in the hopes that these issues can be addressed before they grow worse.

Backlogs…

The government’s security clearance process for employees is meant to identify individuals with criminal histories or other questionable behavior before they receive access to classified information.

However, we’ve found that government agencies aren’t able to investigate and process these security clearances in a timely manner—and, consequently, have fallen way behind. As of September 2017, there were more than 709,000 incomplete background investigations for federal employees and contractors.

Figure 5: National Background Investigation Bureau’s Backlog of Background Investigations, August 2014 to September 2017(Excerpted from GAO-18-29)

…And quality issues

The quality of background investigations is also under scrutiny—despite federal efforts to make improvements. For example, there aren’t government-wide performance measures for a thorough and complete investigation. Having these kinds of measures could help ensure that critical information is identified before a federal employee has access to classified information.

The High Risk List

With the addition of the government-wide personnel security clearance process, GAO’s current High Risk List contains 35 programs and activities. There were 14 areas on the list when it was launched in 1990. Since then, there have been 47 additions, 24 removals, and two areas that were consolidated. We continue to monitor areas we’ve removed from the list and, if significant problems come up again, we will put an issue back on the list.

We regularly update this list every 2 years (near the start of each new Congress) to help set oversight agendas.


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