The GAO has added security clearance processing to its “high-risk” list of vulnerable federal programs, an unusual out-of-cycle addition to the list, not due to be updated until early next year.

GAO said action is needed “sooner, rather than later” to address problems including a backlog that now totals more than 700,000 cases and problems in how the government investigates and adjudicates applications for new or renewed clearances, which are needed for many federal employee, contractor and military positions.

“A high-quality and timely personnel security clearance process is essential to minimize the risks of unauthorized disclosures of classified information and to help ensure that information about individuals with criminal histories or other questionable behavior is identified and assessed,” it said.

GAO said that while reforms have been launched in recent years following the breach of the OPM background investigations database and other incidents, “government-wide measures for the quality of background investigations have not yet been established, and there have been significant delays in completing some key reform efforts.” Those efforts include creating a semi-independent National Background Investigations Bureau within OPM to handle investigations, shifting data security responsibilities to DoD, and most recently legislation to move investigations for DoD personnel to that department, reversing a prior move to consolidate them at OPM.

Security clearances had been on the list from 2005 to 2011. In returning them there, GAO cited its recent reports pointing to the backlog and a lack of long-term goals to address it; delays in processing; the need to identify milestones for establishing government-wide performance measures;delays in completing key initiatives of the security clearance reform effort; and concerns by the DoD about the development of a new information technology system for the personnel security clearance process and its connections to OPM’s legacy systems.

Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the upcoming White House budget proposal should include additional money and management focus on clearances.