Politics

October 31, 2013

Sen. Collins seeks more background checks for security clearances

The bill is a response to the Navy Yard and NSA incidents.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Four U.S. senators including Susan Collins of Maine want to subject people who hold security clearances to random audits, to help ferret out those who should no longer have access to classified information or military facilities.

click image to enlarge

Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, center, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, left, and Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri speak to reporters Wednesday about legislation they are co-sponsoring that would increase the frequency of background checks on individuals who already hold security clearances.

Kevin Miller/Washington Bureau Chief

The group introduced legislation Wednesday to increase the frequency of background checks, one day before a Senate committee examines why Aaron Alexis was able to keep his classified clearance despite a series of troubling incidents.

Alexis, a veteran who was working as a government contractor, shot and killed 12 people at the secure Washington Navy Yard on Sept. 16 before being gunned down by law enforcement.

The senators’ proposal also coincides with intense international scrutiny of – and outrage over – the extensive National Security Agency surveillance operations revealed by Edward Snowden.

“What we have found as we have reviewed the clearance process is that there is a gaping hole that allows troubled individuals to keep their clearances even though they clearly should no longer have them,” said Collins, a Republican, during a news conference Wednesday.

Nearly 5 million Americans hold security clearances. The proposal by Collins, Republican Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Democrats Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Heidi Heitcamp of North Dakota would require two randomly timed audits every five years. Any potentially problematic findings would be reported to the employing agency, which would follow standard procedures for re-evaluating whether the person should maintain their clearance.

All applicants for security clearances get detailed background checks. Those clearances are issued for five, 10 or 15 years, depending on the level of security, before another background check is required.

People who have security clearances are expected to self-report everything from arrests and traffic tickets to changes in their marital status and financial problems. But the senators said few people report such incidents. They estimated that the audits would cost $10 million a year and would be done by the Office of Personnel Management, which already does security clearance checks.

McCaskill, a former prosecutor who serves on the Senate Armed Services and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committees, said the random audits would send a clear signal to contractors that it is in their best interest to self-report. She called the legislation a “no brainer.”

“I don’t know if this would have prevented the Navy Yard shooting,” McCaskill said, “but I know it would have given us a much better chance of preventing the Navy Yard shooting. And we have a moral obligation to move forward on this legislation in a non-controversial, non-political, bipartisan way, if nothing else but to show America that we are still capable of that type of work in this body.”

On Thursday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will hold a hearing to examine the government’s security clearance and background check system, in response to the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard.

The shooting got the most attention from Collins, McCaskill and Ayotte during their press conference. But it was evident that Snowden – the former NSA contractor who has leaked troves of classified surveillance strategies to the press in recent months – also inspired the bill.

Collins, who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, has questioned whether Snowden should have had such a high-level security clearance. She and McCaskill also repeated suggestions Wednesday that troubling aspects of applicants’ backgrounds have been missed by the companies that have been hired to address a backlog of security clearance applications.

The security clearance legislation is the latest example of female senators leading bipartisan efforts on high-profile issues. During this month’s government shutdown, Collins, Ayotte and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, D-Alaska, began working on the first bipartisan solution that provided a framework for the eventual negotiations between Senate leaders.

Women in the House and Senate have also been leading the effort to force the military to address sexual assaults within the ranks.

McCaskill made a passing reference to the fact that the four co-sponsors – two Democrats and two Republicans – are women.

“Not that I am being disparaging about my male colleagues,” McCaskill said, “but I have confidence that the four of us together could be capable of moving mountains if we put our minds to it.”

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

kmiller@pressherald.com

Twitter: @KevinMillerDC

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