Tempers flared over a backlog of security clearances during a Feb. 14 Senate hearing about vulnerabilities in the energy sector, with lawmakers raising concern that the issue was leading to poor cybersecurity.

The exchange began when Sen. Martha McSally, R- Ariz., questioned if there was enough informatjon sharing.

“Vertical information sharing amongst the government and with the private sector is something that is lacking,” McSally said. “The clearance issues, the opportunity to do tare lines so that the information can be shared out there is really important.”

In response, Karen Evans, the assistant secretary for cybersecurity at the Department of Energy, agreed that “the clearance process is an amorphous process.”

Energy committee chairwoman Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, continued: “We have heard that time and time and time again. I understand that it is still an issue even though we had addressed it through the fast tracks, that we continue to have holdups through the FBI.”

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, expanded on the frustration with the background investigations bottleneck.

“The last time we checked in the intelligence committee there was a backlog of something like 750,000 security clearances. It’s a huge problem,” King said.

In fiscal 2016, only 10 percent of executive agencies reviewed in a Government Accountability Office report met timeliness standards for Top Secret clearances. But the American government has made some efforts to fix issues with security clearances in the cybersecurity sector.

During the 2018 midterm election season, the Department of Homeland Security pushed for more state and local officials to receive security clearances so they could receive classified threat briefings. Programs were also created to read-in executives of critical infrastructure sectors about cybersecurity threats the intelligence community was monitoring.

However, there have also been some setbacks.

Efforts from Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. to reform the security clearance process in the 2019 Intelligence Authorization Act were stifled at the last moment and not included in the final bill. However, Warner has continued to push for the measure in new legislation proposed Feb. 1.

“The current vetting process for security clearances and positions of trust is too complicated, takes too long, costs too much, and fails to capitalize on modern technology and processes,” Warner said. “We must act now, especially amidst allegations of inappropriate granting and revoking of clearances and anxieties caused by the government shutdown.”

Justin Lynch is the Associate Editor at Fifth Domain. He has written for the New Yorker, the Associated Press, Foreign Policy, the Atlantic, and others. Follow him on Twitter @just1nlynch.

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