IN APRIL, at a meeting with local defense contractors, business leaders, government officials and academics from the University of Mary Washington, Sen. Mark Warner called for reform of the nation’s security clearance system. A huge backlog of 740,000 people were waiting for security clearances, the senator said, with an average wait time of 540 days—nearly a year and a half.
More than just a bureaucratic nightmare, the backlog had become a national security issue, the vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence told attendees at the roundtable discussion, hosted in Stafford County by the Fredericksburg Regional Alliance.
“This is a system that is completely, completely broken in terms of access and in terms of agencies’ willingness to fund,” Warner said. He pointed out at the time that of 150 elections officials whose voting systems were infiltrated by Russian hackers in November 2016, only 20 had received clearances to review the evidence.
Some things should not be rushed, and granting individuals access to top-secret information without a thorough and complete vetting is one of them. But the federal government has not devoted sufficient resources to make sure that such vetting occurs within a reasonable amount of time.
The lack of action led to the Government Accountability Office placing the security clearance process on its High-Risk List in January, citing a lack of long-term goals to address the backlog and “government wide performance measures” to ensure the quality of the background investigations.
As a result, firms that are doing highly sensitive work for the nation’s defense and intelligence agencies can make all the job offers to highly qualified workers they want, but they can’t bring them on board without a security clearance.
Meanwhile, those same workers, frustrated with the long delay in securing a clearance, may decide to accept a job elsewhere that doesn’t require one. Retaining people with talent and technical skills needed to keep our nation safe is more urgent in an economy with a low unemployment rate, where other opportunities are available without the wait.
The good news is that since April, the federal government has taken several important steps to break the security clearance logjam.
In late June, the Senate Intelligence Committee approved the Intelligence Authorization Act for fiscal years 2018 and 2019, which includes several measures introduced by Warner to promote information sharing between federal agencies and establish a government-wide policy for granting interim clearances.
The bill would also require the Executive Branch to use innovative technology to verify applicants’ information and report back to Congress in a timely manner on measures it is taking to reduce the backlog to 200,000 individuals by the end of 2019.
The goal is to get 90 percent of Secret clearances done within 30 days; 90 percent of Top Secret clearances finalized within 90 days; and 90 percent of reciprocal clearances finished in two weeks. That’s a far cry from a year and a half of waiting.
The legislation also requires the Director of National Intelligence to report “on the concept of a clearance resting with the person, not the agency, enabling mobility across agency, contractor, and contract.”
The White House has already announced plans to gradually transfer the National Background Investigation Bureau from the Office of Personnel Management, which was itself the victim of a cyberattack in 2015 that compromised the personnel records and security clearance files of 22.1 million individuals, to the Department of Defense, since 70 percent of background investigations are done for DoD. The Senate bill concurs with this approach.
“It has long been clear that the 70-year-old process that grants security clearances to government personnel and contractors is in desperate need of reform,” Warner said. “I am pleased this bill provides a fix for this broken process and begins to ease the growing security clearance backlog that undermines the government’s ability to deploy the right people to address some of our greatest national security challenges.”
Finding qualified people, vetting them and getting them cleared in a reasonable amount of time, and then putting them to work protecting the nation should be one of the federal government’s top priorities. Although faster is not always better, neither is going about this urgent task at a snail’s pace when our enemies are out there looking for any advantage they can get.