In October the National Background Investigation Bureau (NBIB) – the agency the Obama administration created following the massive Office of Personnel Management (OPM) hack – took over the clearance process. It wasn’t with a clean slate, of course, and NBIB inherited a backlog of more than 500,000 clearance investigations.
According to research data from last fall the backlog of investigations stood at 343,557 unprocessed clearances at the secret level and 72,566 at the top secret level by the end of the third quarter of fiscal 2016. The backlog of periodic re-investigations stood at 156,172.
Backlogs for security clearance are in many ways par for the course – much like a line at the DMV.
“There is always a backlog, but the question is how long it will last and how big will it be,” said David Berteau, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, the largest trade organization representing government contractors.
“In 1981 clearance was done on typewriters not computers, but the backlog then was around 500,000 records and it has gone down and back up a number of times over the years,” added Berteau. “While there is always going to be a backlog, and it is a problem that has been around for a long while, it is becoming a very serious issue for contractors, Right now it is a waiting game and the security clearance process, which clears people – military, government civilians, political appointees and contractors – is essentially the same process for all of these folks.”
contractors fall to the bottom of the priority list
While anyone needing clearance is waiting, it is often contractors who feel the direct impact to both their bottom line and ability to staff.
“Contractors are on the bottom of the list, and any backlog will have a disproportionate number waiting in line,” said Berteau. “Government employees and political appointees will get approved first.The irony is that this makes it hard for government to do its job. This also will cost the government money, as work has already been awarded but the job isn’t being done. Work that is funded can’t be done because clearances are so backlogged.”
Berteau further warned that it the backlog is such that clearances are taking three times as long to get processed, and what should have routinely been done in 40 days is now taking 100 days or more.
“The mission has slowed down, and it has affected the mission’s contractors negatively,” said Berteau. “All this has an impact on revenue and profit.”
scrutiny and security
Because of hacks, leaks and other breaches, the backlog is likely only going to get worse – and employees could truly be caught in the cross fire.
“Every time information is leaked, whether classified or just privacy sensitive documents such as SF86s, increased delays occur as agencies scramble to plug the perceived holes and fashion remedies to try to further address the problems through background processing or insider threat programs,” said attorney Mark Zaid, who specializes in issues related to security clearance.
The need to push through the backlog is trumped by increased scrutiny in investigations, and the delays just grow lengthier.
“This is very much the new normal, and I’m predicting that it could get worse,” said Greg Rinckey of the Tully Rinckey law office. “If you are a contractor, it is time to learn to be patient.”
Unfortunately, today’s delays and backlogs are nothing new – simply the continuation of a trend that began with the OPM hack announced in June of 2015.
“The clearance processing and adjudicative background has been increasingly worsening in the last few years,” added Zaid. “OPM is taking longer to finish background investigations and the agencies, especially the DoDCAF, are particularly backlogged. I see no indication that the current administration is even aware of the issues, much less undertaking any effort to address them. This is creating additional difficulties for contractors to find cleared personnel.”
The recent WikiLeaks data dump of classified CIA documents is just the latest insider threat or hacking scandal to rock the intelligence community. And until the security community establishes a clear process for continuous monitoring, the onus is on the background investigation process to produce the information necessary to vet America’s secret keepers.