Security Vs. Speed in the Security Clearance Process

Intelligence

Image via the Office of the National Counterintelligence Director.

The most recent big dump of classified information to Wikileaks is framed by the cleared industry’s concerns and growing impatience with the still significant security clearance backlog the National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB) is working to address. Right now, to make matters worse for private-sector contracting organizations who are screaming the loudest, the CIA is reporting that some contractor or contractors are behind what many are describing as a leak as bad or worse than the Snowden leak.

GROWING clearance backlog PROBLEMS

“According to OMB, between February and September 2016, the backlog grew more than 22 percent from 464,000 to 569,000. . . . All signs indicate it is still going up,” writes David Berteau, CEO of the Professional Services Council, a prominent advocacy organization founded in 1972 to represent government technology and service industry interests. “Processing times are also too long, nearly triple the goal of 40 days for secret-level investigations (averaging 105 days) and 80 days for top secret-level investigations (214 days),” Berteau writes.

FOLLOW THE MONEY

Clearances cost money. Beating a backlog takes more money. And lots of it. Money means equipment. Money means people. Money means time, extra time, overtime. To accommodate the both the backlog and the forecasted clearance requirements for the years ahead, OPM has to hire, train, and equip. In the federal system, it takes a lot of time. Still, federal agencies and private-sector businesses have to front money to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) commensurate with the anticipated number of clearances each agency will require. That let’s OPM hire enough staff to meet requirements. From Berteau’s view, “Fixing the problems will take a serious infusion of additional people and funds, and the longer we wait, the greater the backlog will become.”

ClearanceJobs.Com’s own Melissa Jordan reports that these sorts of measures are being taken right now. “In addition to the 400 employees OPM hired in FY 2016,” Jordan writes, “OPM plans to hire an additional 200 investigators. OPM also has additional contracts underway for additional background investigation functions. NBIB has also aligned its IT infrastructure with the Defense Information Systems Agency, which will automate some of the more basic adjudication functions in clearance reviews.”

Change takes time. Progress that’s a product of that change takes even longer. Both require patience.

EMBRACE CHANGE

Right now, the backlog is getting bigger, not smaller. Keeping up will take significant change. As most any employee in the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Veterans Benefits Administration can tell you, tackling a backlog like the one NBIB and OPM share is tough, very tough to fix. It takes time and patience, a real transformation in how the agency does business—which means, in part, transitioning from paper to electrons—and a whole lot of employee hours and routine, long-term, overtime, all of which means more and more money. And it takes the leadership and unyielding commitment of strong leaders. Then, and only then, you can make some progress.

According to Berteau, that’s not what the industry’s seeing in addressing the clearance crisis. “Investigators ask basically the same questions they did 40 years ago,” Berteau writes, “often going door-to-door and relying on face-to-face meetings with neighbors and friends.” And, according to Berteau, while the rest of government, and the world, is pushing hard to get to digital processes, the clearance process is mired in paper. He argues what every professional in the industry knows, real progress will take “serious changes in investigations processes . . . digital tools . . . ongoing updates instead of periodic reinvestigations, reducing the over-classification of material and the number of positions that require clearances, and focusing adjudication attention based on risk to the government rather than on rote application of rules.”

Right now current events—without strong, visionary, committed leadership—may freeze any efforts to accelerate anything, because many will associate speed with security shortcomings.

Ed Ledford enjoys the most challenging, complex, and high stakes communications requirements. His portfolio includes everything from policy and strategy to poetry. A native of Asheville, N.C., and retired Army Aviator, Ed’s currently writing speeches in D.C. and working other writing projects from his office in Rockville, MD. He loves baseball and enjoys hiking, camping, and exploring anything. Follow Ed on Twitter @ECLedford.

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