The Office of Personnel Management, already reeling from major security breaches, announced a plan late last month to take its web-based system for handling security clearances offline to fix a vulnerability. The backup plan involves traditional paperwork, something trade groups say is a major step back.
Groups that represent federal contractors have a message for the government: Just because the current security clearance system is vulnerable doesn’t mean that pen and paper is the answer.
The decision by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to temporarily shut down the web-based e-QIP application, after a widely reported security breach that affected more than 4 million current and former federal employees, could cause a major backlog and organizational issues, according to the American Federal Contract Investigators Association (AFCIA) and the Professional Services Council (PSC).
This is especially worrisome for the groups because the backup plan involves switching back to hard-copy questionnaires for clearance applications, thereby creating a literal paperwork hazard. AFCIA President Carolyn Martin explained to The Washington Post that the situation has the potential to put background investigators “further and further behind” each day.
In an op-ed for Washington Technology, PSC President and CEO Stan Soloway noted that the e-QIP tool was not one of the applications affected by last month’s hack, but it is being shut down because of a vulnerability that OPM discovered.
“In this case, the issue is therefore NOT what support the government is going to provide to individuals but, rather, how the government can and will mitigate the impacts of an effective shutdown of the security clearance process,” Soloway explained.
For its part, OPM says it recognizes the disruption that the shutdown will create and has come up with a partial solution.
“Recognizing the impact of the system being down on both users and agencies OPM has, in agreement with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, implemented a set of interim procedures to address agencies’ requirements and reduce the likelihood of interruptions in the on-boarding of employees while prudently minimizing any security risks,” Samuel Schumach, an agency spokesman, said in a statement to Government Executive. The agency will allow the submission of paper background investigation forms by applicants seeking clearances at the secret level or below.
Members of Congress, such as Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine (D) and Mark Warner (D), have also questioned the backup plan, which they say will only make matters worse until e-QIP goes back online (in four to six weeks), and they emphasize that more details on it [PDF] are needed.
PSC’s Soloway agrees, noting that OPM’s planned return to paper won’t even fully replace the web-based security clearance system.
“They’re sort of taking this giant step backwards,” he told The Washington Examiner on Wednesday.