The job of government is truly 24/7. No matter who occupies the White House or which political party controls Congress the work of government goes on. One exception to the rule is when people simply can’t do their job because of delays in obtaining the necessary security clearance.
The current backlog of security clearance investigations is around 500,000 records, and clearance processing times continue to increase exponentially. One of the ongoing issues is the vast disparity between investigation times. Cases with similar backgrounds or even within the same agency may not move forward at the same pace.
“Not every security clearance holder and every security clearance are equal,” Bill Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center and the National Counterintelligence Executive, told Federal News Radio in February. “We’ve come to the understanding and we’ve come to the process of identifying ways to effectively prioritize that your security clearance and you are more important than mine so you should go first, and that you should get polygraphed first and I should stay second.”
While prioritizing individuals for clearance was a matter of fact, Evanina added that not every agency followed the same processes. While individuals are waiting, the job still needs to get done.
“We already see that if you need to get clearance to do your job there are ways to get interim clearance,” said Greg Rinckey of the Tully Rinckey law office. “This interim clearance can be granted so you can do your job while full clearance is waiting.”
Backlog and the clearance Job Market
“You would think it would be a sellers’ market, but that isn’t the case on the ground,” said David Berteau, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, the largest trade organization representing government contractors.
“The job security and continuity isn’t necessarily there,” added Berteau. “This is harder on companies and they may be more reluctant. The hiring process could be longer and more thorough, too.”
One reason making employers reluctant to hire according to Berteau is that a security clearance isn’t free. There is the cost of onboarding personnel, and potentially paying for the salary of a candidate for months while they wait for a final determination. Unless they hire individuals who already have a current clearance, the company has to invest money to hire someone who may not work out.
“The market is too volatile right now for companies to take a risk,” said Berteau. “They need to be sure a new hire is the absolute right fit.”
Budget concerns are exacerbated by the need to plan ahead and keep pace with the federal budget process – or the latest scandal.
“The money gets put into budget two years before it is spent,” explained Berteau. “This is still affecting clearance, following the OPM hack. In other words, you would have had to know the OPM hack was going to occur, and nobody saw that coming.”
The background investigation delays, especially on the contractor side, shouldn’t be viewed entirely negatively. What this backlog means is that there has been more due diligence, and in some cases it is overdue.
“The current backlog is being created as a result of a closer look at security clearance investigations,” explained Rinckey. “This backlog is very much a result of what happened with Snowden and now the more recent CIA breaches. There needed to be a closer look.”
The time between reinvestigations should also be shortened, added Rinckey.
“Five to 10 years is too long for a reinvestigation in this day and age,” added Rinckey. “There should also be more random investigations.”
A sledgehammer approach to a precision laser problem
One problem that Rinckey noted is that in the past background investigations were conducted by businesses that were in it for profit. That prompted investigations that were passed too quickly. The leaks by Edward Snowden and former National Security Agency contractor Harold Martin show this can result in serious problems. And while due diligence needs to be done in background investigations, there’s also a need to balance that with a consideration for the careers left hanging and the jobs left unfilled.
“The government still remains terrible at combating these occurrences and continues to use a sledge hammer approach to a precision laser problem,” said attorney Mark Zaid, who specializes in issues related to security clearance.
“Our experience shows that unlike in criminal cases where the government would say it would rather have 10 guilty people go free rather than convict an innocent person,” Zaid noted, “In the security arena the government would rather ruin the careers of 99 people in order to prevent the one possible person who would release classified information.”