Lawmakers Are Taking Another Crack At Security Clearance Reform

 Rep. Adam Schiff, left, speaks with Sen. Mark Warner at an event marking 100 days since the death of Jamal Khashoggi on Capitol Hill Jan. 10.

Rep. Adam Schiff, left, speaks with Sen. Mark Warner at an event marking 100 days since the death of Jamal Khashoggi on Capitol Hill Jan. 10. Andrew Harnik/Shutterstock.com

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And they’re demanding answers about Facebook’s missteps and the shutdown’s impact on cybersecurity.

A bill reintroduced in the Senate on Friday would overhaul the security clearance process and force the government to start chipping away at a backlog of nearly 570,000 pending investigations.

The Modernizing the Trusted Workforce for the 21st Century Act, sponsored by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., would push agencies to adopt new technologies and policies that would accelerate background checks and reduce duplicative investigations.

Under the legislation, the White House would be required to move forward with plans to merge the National Background Investigations Bureau, which conducts most of the government’s security checks, into the Pentagon. The bill would also charge the Director of National Intelligence with streamlining the time-intensive, paper-heavy security clearance process.

The day before reintroducing the bill, Warner sent a letter to top intelligence community and White House officials criticizing lengthy security checks as a barrier to attracting the best and brightest to government.

“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 in a statement. “We are taking too many security risks and losing talented people who are not willing to endure a years-long process. Our current system is broken and needs a revolution.”

Always on the Hunt

Lawmakers want to make sure the Homeland Security Department’s cyber response teams don’t go anywhere.

Sens. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H. and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, on Friday reintroduced legislation that would require the department to stand up permanent teams of cyber specialists to help government and industry fend off digital threats. The DHS Cyber Hunt and Incident Response Teams Act would charge the units with alerting partners to potential cyber risks, helping them create cyber defense strategy and restoring services if any attackers get through.

Let ‘Em Play

Lawmakers want to make it easier for immigrants with backgrounds in tech to stay in the country.

The Startup Act, reintroduced Thursday by Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., Mark Warner, D-Va., Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., would create special visas for foreign-born entrepreneurs and STEM experts to keep them in the country and ideally fuel the tech economy. It would also make it easier to commercialize academic research and streamline federal, state and local regulations to promote innovation.

“To compete and succeed in a 21st Century global economy, we have to make our country the best place in the world for entrepreneurs to start and grow their businesses,” said Sen. Blunt. “This bill will help promote innovation and small business growth … [and] also increase U.S. competitiveness by making sure we have the workforce we need for high-demand STEM fields.”

Doing More at DHS

House lawmakers on Tuesday approved a pair of bills that would strengthen the Homeland Security Department’s counterterrorism efforts.

The Counterterrorism Advisory Board Act, introduced by Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., would stand up a group to coordinate the department’s response to threats and advise the secretary on terrorism alerts. The board would be responsible for bringing together intelligence and coordinating counterterrorism efforts across the sprawling agency.

The DHS Field Engagement Accountability Act would require department officials to map out a strategy for working with nationwide “fusion centers,” where government agencies come together to work on counterterrorism programs. Sponsored by Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., the bill would mandate the agency update the coordination strategy at least every five years.

Paid and Played

A pair of lawmakers want answers about “highly troubling allegations” that Facebook manipulated kids into spending their parents’ money through games on the site.

“Facebook employees appear to have had direct knowledge that specific design features and default settings encourages this type of spending,” Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Ed Markey, D-Mass., wrote in a letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “These findings are alarming and raise serious concerns about whether your company and its employees knowingly harmed families.”

The two lawmakers demanded information about when the company first became aware of the problem and what it's doing to address it. They also called on the social media site to return its ill-gotten funds.

But That’s Not All

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., also wrote to Zuckerberg requesting information about Facebook’s dubious data collection practices.

On Tuesday, TechCrunch reported the company paid users ages 13 to 35 to install a virtual private network that allowed Facebook to vacuum up web browsing and smartphone data. On Wednesday, Warner asked Zuckerberg whether he thought any users reasonably understood the agreement and how their data was being used.

“Facebook’s apparent lack of full transparency with users—particularly in the context of ‘research’ efforts—has been a source of frustration for me,” Warner said.

No Rest for the Weary

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielson also received a letter from Warner asking how the country’s cyber defenses were impacted after the “government was needlessly shutdown for 35 days.”

Warner requested details on how the agency’s cyber employees and contracts were impacted by the shutdown, and whether intrusion attempts increased at all during while the agency’s doors were closed. He also asked Nielson to weigh in on how the shutdown impacted employee morale and any efforts to recruit new talent.

Coming Up

Committee rosters are largely finalized, so the tech and cyber hearings are in full swing this week. Here’s what’s on the agenda:

On Tuesday at 10:30 a.m., the Senate Appropriations Committee will review the massive electronic health record overhaul at the Veterans Affairs Department.

At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee will be briefed by intelligence leaders on worldwide threats.

At the same time, the House Armed Services Committee will evaluate the Defense Department’s counterterrorism efforts.

At 3 p.m.,the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee will host a closed hearing with intelligence leaders on worldwide threats.

At 10 a.m. on Thursday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will assess the country’s energy innovation efforts.

At the same time, the House Budget Committee will discuss investments in the country’s economic and national security.

At 11 a.m., the House Energy and Commerce telecom subcommittee will explore ways to preserve the open internet for small businesses and consumers.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include the most recent security clearance backlog statistics.