An executive order issued in 1995 outlines screening procedures for those who apply for a security clearance, including reviewing financial records, ensuring loyalty to the United States, and other factors. Another executive order, issued in 2008, further clarified the process of determining whether someone is suitable to have access to classified national security information and created a Suitability and Security Clearance Performance Accountability Council. It also established the director of OPM as the Suitability Executive Agent responsible for developing and implementing consistent policies and procedures.
However, the GAO says there is no “clearly defined policy guidance” for determining when a federal position needs a security clearance. This results in agencies using an unreliable tool—the Position Designation of National Security and Public Trust Positions—created by OPM to determine the sensitivity and risk levels of civilian positions and the type of background investigation that’s required for the person who will occupy that position.
Because the types of background investigations for positions aren’t standardized, some investigations fail to reveal information that could result in an applicant being denied a security clearance. One prime example is Alexis, the former contractor who was involved in multiple incidents with law enforcement and sought mental health counseling, but managed to retain his security clearance.
Also contributing to the tool’s unreliability is a lack of input from the ODNI, which has resulted in incorrect position designations among special-sensitive, critical-sensitive, and noncritical sensitive used for levels of security clearance access. In an April 2012 audit of the Department of Defense (DoD), GAO found that the sensitivity levels on OPM’s designation of 39 positions differed from the DoD's designations in 26 instances.
Despite the incorrect designations and the lack of clear guidance, 4.9 million federal government employees and contractor employees held, or were eligible to hold, a security clearance in 2012 and “a high volume of clearances continue to be processed,” Farrell said.