Since it’s creation, the security clearance process has been a mainstay of limiting access to the defense and intelligence community. It is, to put it simply, the gate-keeper to America’s secrets. However, it is far from perfect. In a recent article, three anonymous participants of the Partnership For A Secure America’s Congressional Partnership Progress call for wide-sweeping reforms to the security clearance process to help reduce employment challenges, reduce federal costs, and improve national security.

To demonstrate just one of the problems with the current security clearance process, the authors describe a real life example:

“A veteran of the war in Afghanistan who had the highest Department of Defense security clearances in the Army Special Forces came to Washington to begin a job in the private sector with a defense contractor. Despite his existing clearance, it took him more than three months to receive another security clearance from the Department of Homeland Security to begin the duties related to his new job.”

The scenario mirrors the findings of a 2012 ClearanceJobs survey which found that despite improvements in processing times, issues with reciprocity and the uncertainty of processing times meant that companies strongly favored already-cleared professionals.

Issues like this are a major concern for cleared workers, federal agencies, and defense contractors because lengthy delays caused by the slow clearance process can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. These costs are all the more harmful in the uncertain financial future that most contractors currently operate in.

Rather than creating overarching legislation to fix the security clearance process, the authors take a different approach, proposing “a bipartisan initiative from Congress” in the form of a “letter of joint recommendation to the Administration from the respective chairmen and ranking members on committees of jurisdiction.” The letter would be a message to agency heads about the importance Congress and the White House place in improving the security clearance process, but would give agencies flexibility in how those improvements would be implemented. Specifically, the reforms, according to the authors, must address these questions:

  • “Are the existing security clearance levels best tailored to the needs of existing and emerging security threats; should the existing levels be the starting framework;
  • Does it enhance or decrease our national security interests to have fewer individuals in the public and private sector with access to all aspects of secure information or more security personnel with knowledge of only parts of the pie;
  • What are the major tenets of the highest standards of a thorough background check;
  • What are the unique needs of each agency that must be included in a universal standard process;
  • Should there be mutual recognition of clearance between agencies, and should they differ from the private sector;
  • Is it possible to improve internal mechanisms of data security in order to increase the number of public and private sector employees with access to noncritical and critical data, while keeping the access to special-sensitive information to limited, traceable few;
  • How often should clearance reviews occur; and,
  • What is the benefit of a nimble public and private sector workforce able to service a variety of agency needs?”

It seems unlikely, under the current political climate in Washington, D.C., that this proposed solution will come into fruition anytime soon. However, it is good to see that these conversations around reforming the security clearance process are taking place. In time we might well see a leaner and faster clearance process come out of these exact discussions, and that is something we can all hope for.

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Mike Jones is a researcher, writer, and analyst on national and international security. He lives in the DC area.