Budget Cuts Hamper Background Investigations For Pentagon Contractors

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"Budget Cuts Hamper Background Investigations For Pentagon Contractors"

(Credit: Flickr user Eric Castro)

Due to a shortfall in funding, the Pentagon has been forced to forgo its usual investigations to update security clearances for contractors who work on some of the most highly classified projects in the country.

As a result of sequestration, the Pentagon is implementing across-the-board, untargeted cuts of approximately $41 billion in 2013. One of the programs hit by these blunt reductions is the Defense Security Service (DSS), the section of the Defense Department (DOD) tasked with issuing security clearances to the thousands of civilian staffers and contractors who work within the Pentagon.

On June 7, the DSS quietly announced on its website that it was facing a “budget shortfall” until at least September. The result: a suspension of “most” of the routine background investigations into the people who already hold Top Secret clearances. These “Periodic Reinvestigations (PRs)” — conducted by the Defense Industrial Security Clearance Office (DISCO) and the Office of Personnel and Management — are nominally required every five years, to ensure that there are no new issues in the trustworthiness of the people who have access to some of the most highly classified information in the national security system.

The announcement came just days before now-former Booz Allen Hamilton employee Edward Snowden came forward as the source who leaked a slew of classified documents on previously secret survellience programs to the Guardian and Washington Post. Since Snowden was a Booz contractor assigned to the National Security Agency, Snowden’s actions have launched a national conversation on the role of contractors in the country’s security apparatus. According to DSS, however, contractor personnel “identified as key management personnel” were exempt from the suspension on reinvestigations. A source also told Reuters that due to his position at the NSA and his former job with the Central Intelligence Agency, those agencies would have handled his clearance processes internally.

Regardless, the fact that reinvestigations are going uncompleted for the thousands of contractors and DOD employees who hold Top Secret clearances highlights a serious problem for the Pentagon. Rather than Congress instituting a series of targeted cuts to programs whose trimming would make the defense budget more sustainable, the indiscriminate nature of sequestration cuts has had a serious impact on the country’s security system. The cuts have also forced many of the secrets these clearance holders have access to to stay secret, as funding for declassifying millions of documents has been stripped as well.

The entire classification and clearance process is widely seen as an opaque, Byzantine process badly in need of reform, a critique that’s been fuelled by the Snowden affair. Sens. John Tester (D-MT) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) plan to hold hearings on Thursday afternoon on the way in which clearances are issued, interviewing government officials on how Snowden managed to obtain the clearance that he did.

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