In the wake of security issues raised by government contractors with top-level security clearance, including one at MacDill Air Force Base, Sen. Bill Nelson has co-sponsored legislation tightening how that clearance is issued.
The bill, introduced Wednesday, calls for increasing oversight of background investigations, firing investigators involved in falsifying those checks, and providing better guidance to determine when security clearance is required.
Nelson signed onto the bill as a result of controversies involving two contractors with defense giant Booz Allen Hamilton. One contractor, Edward Snowden, has been charged with espionage after leaking information about classified National Security Agency data mining programs to the media. The other contractor, Scott Allan Bennett, received the highest-level security clearance in 2008 as a Booz Allen Hamilton employee just months after pleading guilty of a federal misdemeanor charge of lying to the government to bring a woman from South America he met on the Internet into the country.
"We've got to do a better job safeguarding our country's secrets," Nelson, a member of the Armed Services Committee, stated in an email to The Tampa Tribune, who previously served on the Senate's Intelligence Committee.
In addition to concerns with the contractors, Nelson is also taking aim at companies that do the background checks required to issue security clearance. One of those companies, USIS, is the subject of an Office of Personnel Management probe into whether it properly conducted checks. Snowden received his clearance through USIS, but the investigation into the company predated the controversy over the leaks.
Nelson's office said the bill would address his concerns by allowing the Office of Personnel Management to "fund background investigation on personnel at federal agencies and provide oversight on these background investigations."
It would also change the way background investigators are treated. Currently, until they have been fired, they can continue to conduct investigations even if under suspicion of wrongdoing. The bill would require those employees to be fired if they falsify reports or engage in fraud.
The bill also calls on the director of national intelligence to issue guidance to agencies on what jobs require security clearance and to implement a plan within 180 days of it becoming law.
The legislation is Nelson's second major action on the issue of security clearance. Last month, reacting to the cases of Snowden and Bennett, Nelson called on the Senate Intelligence Committee to investigate who gets high level security clearance.
Bennett is now in a federal prison in Pennsylvania after being convicted two years ago of one count of making a false statement, one count of wearing his uniform without authorization and two counts of violating a security agreement by bringing concealed weapons on base and storing weapons and ammunition in his apartment at MacDill Air Force Base without permission.
The conviction stems from an incident at MacDill where Bennett, a defense contractor and Army Reserve second lieutenant, was found to be living on base under false pretenses and found to have several weapons and about 9,000 rounds of ammunition in his base apartment.