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Computer Shutdown Hits Defense Security Service

By Walter Pincus Washington Post Staff Writer Saturday, July 8, 2000; Page A10

A $100 million computer system installed two years ago by the Defense Security Service (DSS) has been shut down for more than a week, the latest example of disarray at the agency that conducts background checks for Defense Department security clearances.

Persistent computer problems at the Alexandria-based DSS have contributed to a backlog of almost a million investigations into military and civilian employees of the Pentagon, the armed forces and private defense contractors.

The computer system, hastily installed with little testing in 1998, crashed on June 29 because of what officials called a data overload. It is not expected to go back into operation until Monday, according to retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles J. Cunningham Jr., who took over the DSS a year ago with a mandate to upgrade the computer system, shape up the investigative process and cut the backlog.

Although the computer shutdown "was orderly," Cunningham said, "we lost some files." Restarting the system has been delayed because "it takes a lot of time to load data back into the computer," he added.

The DSS's comptroller, Robert Donnelly, said the agency plans to spend $47.2 million over the next five years to "stabilize" its computers. In addition, it has budgeted $235 million to hire four civilian investigating firms for as much as five years to cut down the number of pending security checks.

Some of the approximately 1 million employees awaiting background checks are seeking new security clearances. But most of the backlog consists of employees who are due for periodic re-investigation of existing clearances. By law, re-investigations are required every five years for a "top secret" clearance, every 10 years for a "secret" clearance and every 15 years for access to "confidential" material.

The DSS conducts background checks but does not actually issue security clearances. Rather, it forwards the results of its investigations to the Office of the Secretary of Defense or the various armed services, which decide whether to grant clearances. Often, the adjudicators ask for additional information.

Last week's computer breakdown, Cunningham said, was caused by increased data coming into the system as the number of completed investigations nearly doubled from earlier this year, to about 1,800 cases a day by mid-June. His goal, he said, had been to reach 2,500 case closures a day by mid-August, a rate that would represent more cases being closed than opened for the first time in years.

The breakdown was not entirely unexpected. Gary L. Denman, president and CEO of GRC International Inc., a DSS computer contractor, warned earlier this year that even with various improvements the system "still chokes" and that he was not sure "whether the software can handle it."

One result of the computer problems and backlog in investigations is that a growing number of Defense Department personnel with access to top-secret information have not been subjected to security checks in more than five years.

The need for periodic re-investigations was highlighted last year when a routine check on Navy Petty Officer Daniel King, who worked at the code-breaking National Security Agency, resulted in an espionage charge. King was arrested in October and charged with mailing the Russian Embassy a computer disk with secret data about U.S. submarine operations.

The Pentagon's security problems, however, have drawn far less congressional interest than the travails of the Department of Energy, which is reeling from allegations of security lapses at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

-- Martin Thompson (, July 08, 2000

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