Security clearance investigators must protect data, watchdog says

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The federal agency that investigates applicants for senior government jobs and for top-secret national security positions must ensure that its 7,000 field investigators are protecting the highly sensitive medical, financial, and personal information they collect, the Government Accountability Office says.

The Federal Investigative Services (FIS), a unit within the Office of Personnel Management, handled over 2 million investigations in 2009. It houses an extensive amount of confidential information about American citizens collected while doing background checks and credit searches for high-ranking government job applicants, and for workers who need access to classified national security documents.

An analysis by the GAO found that the FIS needs to step up its handling of privacy leaks, especially among field investigators who are involved with more than 80 percent of lost or stolen papers. “The agency lacks assurance that sensitive information is being handled appropriately during this critical phase of the background investigation process,” the watchdog report said.

FIS has also failed to identify the risks of privacy breaches. The E-Government Act of 2002 requires government agencies with personal information to analyze how personal information is collected, stored, and shared to ensure it remains private. Last year, an inspector general report found that not all FIS staff completed required training on security and privacy issues. The agency responded with new training and ordered staff to report any security breaches or losses within 30 minutes.

FAST FACT: FIS investigators spent at least 50 hours verifying information for each “top secret” clearance designation in 2009, and spent about 6 to 10 hours for each “secret” or “confidential” clearance designation.

Other new watchdog reports released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), various federal Offices of Inspector General (OIG), and other government entities:

NATIONAL SECURITY

* Energy Dept’s National Nuclear Security Administration needs plan to manage tritium releases from nuclear reactors to provide reliable supply for nuclear warheads (GAO).

* Pentagon subcontractors paid to guard installations in Afghanistan are funneling taxpayer dollars to Afghan warlords linked to murder, kidnapping, and the Taliban (Senate Armed Services Committee).

* States that get money under the billion-dollar Public Safety Interoperable Communications program to help first responders communicate better in a disaster are not properly documenting matching funds and need close monitoring by FEMA (OIG).

(See also Center for Public Integrity’s Homeland Security Boom and Bust project.)

ENVIRONMENT

* States and Indian tribes can use the Natural Resources Damage Assessment process to determine harm to coastal marshes, beaches, and dispersants use from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The states may sue for damages and seek up to $500 million for damage to natural resources (Congressional Research Service).

MISC.

* Education Dept. inconsistently fines post-secondary schools that violate 1992 ban on paying incentives to individuals for enrolling students or obtaining federal student aid (GAO).

* No single source exists to track the costs of all international trips taken by House and Senate lawmakers, and only a rough estimate can be calculated based on the disclosure of foreign currency used in foreign trips by Congress (Congressional Research Service).

Note: Congressional Research Service reports, which are given to lawmakers but not made public, were provided by the Center for Democracy and Technology.

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