An evaluation of the State Department’s security clearance process was released by its Office of Inspector General this month. The verdict? The agency can only loosely estimate the time it takes to process clearances, and doesn’t track the costs, either.
The Department of State has been reporting its processing times to the Office of Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), and is one of seven intelligence agencies required to do so by the 2010 Intelligence Authorization Act. But the OIG audit of those reports, “identified a number of errors, making it impossible for OIG to determine the actual amount of time it takes to process clearances at the Department.”
The OIG report also found the Department of State hasn’t analyzed how much it spends on investigations. Despite being required by law to ensure security clearances are processed in a ‘cost-effective manner’ and report these costs to the ODNI, the Department currently has no analysis, and gathers no information on the costs related to its security clearance program.
The OIG report began in September of 2016, and was specifically meant to address the accuracy of the data the Department was submitting to ODNI, the extent of security clearance processing delays, and the costs associated with the security clearance process.
The OIG report found that between 2012 and 2016, the Department of State conducted over 63,000 Secret and Top Secret clearance investigations, and 2,700 reciprocity requests. The State Department is one of a few agencies which maintains its own personnel security program. Its investigators also work overseas, providing investigative support to other federal agencies.
State Chose to Estimate Its Numbers
The Department of State was estimating several key aspects of the processing times data it passed along to ODNI, the report found. Rather than determining the actual time for the ‘initiation’ phase of the security clearance process, the State Department estimated the initiation phase to be 22 days for all applications, but the report noted HR officials stated the initiation phase may take as long as 8 weeks.
And while estimating 22 days where 8 weeks is the reality is bad enough, the OIG found in FY 2015, the Department of State reported to ODNI that the amount of time it took to process a security clearance from initiation to adjudication was 2 days – they left off the 22 day ‘estimate’ for initiation completely. The Department had no idea why those figures were left off, and told the OIG the individual who prepared the reports from 2012-2015 was no longer with the agency, so they had no way of determining where those figures had come from, or why initiation was left off.
For processing times, the Department used two systems of record – one for overall case management and one primarily for field officers. The OIG found the records were inconsistent, with different times displayed in each system of record.
Unreliable Student Interns
One impediment to Department of State security clearance processing times? Student interns. The Department hires a high volume of student interns, processing security clearances for both the primary intern and an alternate, in case the top candidate is unable to get the clearance or ends up turning down the position. Because intern security clearances must be processed with a time crunch, they push other investigations back. And investigations end up being adjudicated for interns who never report for duty. From just the spring of 2015 to the fall of 2016, 1,191 Secret Clearances and 46 Top Secret clearances were granted for interns who never reported to work. Only 65 percent of intern candidates who receive clearances join the Department, and those individuals only serve for 10 weeks.
The OIG report concludes with five recommendations for the Department of State. They include performing a workforce analysis of cleared personnel, estimates of cost, and improving processing time data to ensure it is consistent – and accurate.