National Security Gaps Created by Slow Clearance Processing Times

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If anyone is surprised by the recent Defense Security Service (DSS) report which found 486 industry applicants had their clearances denied or revoked, with 165 defense contractors slipping through the initial round of vetting who had problematic or illicit activity, including questionable financial transactions, influence by foreign governments and even felonies…..they shouldn’t be.

The interim security clearance process has been used routinely by DoD DSS for Industry for years.   In fact, current DSS guidance dictates that “all applicants for a personnel security clearance submitted by a cleared contractor will be “routinely” considered for an interim eligibility”.  Interim Secret determinations are currently based on very limited information….acceptable proof of citizenship, favorable review of the completed Standard Form 86, favorable review of local personnel, base, military police, medical and security records as applicable, and appropriate investigations opened by the investigative service provider, and favorable review of the FBI criminal history report (fingerprint report).

The guidance goes on to state, “interim eligibility will permit the individual to have access to most of the classified information needed to perform his or her duties.  The interim eligibility will generally remain in effect until the investigation is completed, at which time the applicant is considered for final eligibility.”  The decision to issue an interim eligibility is made by the Personnel Security Management Office for Industry (PSMO-I) adjudicator, who considers the 13 adjudicative guidelines.

To refresh, the Security Executive Agent Directive 4 (SEAD 4), implemented the updated national security adjudication guidelines on June 8, 2017.   The 13 adjudicative guidelines include: allegiance to the United States, foreign influence, foreign preference, sexual behavior, personal conduct, financial considerations, alcohol consumption, drug involvement, psychological conditions, criminal conduct, handling protected information, outside activities, and use of information technology systems.

The ongoing national security crisis created by the backlog of national security background investigations continues to drive ill-conceived solutions in an attempt to provide relief due to the significant delays being experienced by Executive Branch agencies and industry to clear staff for federal or contractor service.   Delays in conducting periodic reinvestigations (PR) Top Secret from 5 to 6 years, postponing the PR for Secret from 10 to 5 years as outlined in the White House Navy Yard 120 day review, heavy reliance on interim determinations, along with continued delays to implement a cross-government continuous evaluation program has increased the risk to national security.

Even though interim security determinations can help provide relief caused by background investigation delays, the current procedures fall well short in giving adjudicators the information necessary to effectively adjudicate against all 13 guidelines.  Some might even say that we are putting expediency ahead of our own national security.

Let’s briefly breakdown the national security risks associated with the interim secret determination procedures by walking through each element.

  • Acceptable proof of citizenship – COMPLETE -one of the easiest elements to validate, although it does not answer the critical adjudicative elements of allegiance to the United States, foreign influence, or foreign preference.
  • Favorable review of the completed Standard Form 86 – RELIANT ON APPLICANT TRUTHFULNESS -The SF-86 Security clearance questionnaire is completed by the applicant. An applicant failing to tell the truth will typically not be uncovered until the full background investigation is completed. Significant risk is associated with basing interim security determinations based solely on the applicant’s account.
  • Favorable review of local personnel, base, military police, medical and security records as applicable – INCOMPLETE – Risks are increased with applicants without previous government affiliations or military service. Rarely will there be results from these checks.
  • Appropriate investigation opened by the investigative service provider – UNRESPONSIVE TO ADJUDCATIVE GUIDELINES -The fact that and investigation has been initiated is little comfort when current investigative timelines for industry investigations is more than 500 days for a Top Secret clearance and 200 days for a Secret clearance. IAW current policy, interim eligibility will generally remain in effect until the investigation is completed, this presents a significant risk.
  • Favorable review of the FBI criminal history report (fingerprint report) – INCOMPLETE – Even though the FBI fingerprint check is a reliable source for obtaining “some” criminal history record information, to access the most complete criminal history information it is necessary to use other personal identifiers. In addition, the FBI database is not a case management system, it is a contributory database, meaning the completeness of the criminal history information is dependent on records provided by state law enforcement agencies. To get the full criminal history record information (CHRI) a combination of automated fingerprint checks, name checks, and field leads accomplished where the applicant has lived, worked and gone to school must be accomplished.

With the expectation that an adjudicator is going to determine the issuance of an interim security clearance against all 13 adjudicative guidelines with very limited information available through the interim determination elements, it is clear that the government has decided from a risk management perspective, to “roll the dice” by putting people with limited vetting into national security positions.  Knowing the process, are you still surprised by the fact that people with questionable financial transactions, influenced by foreign governments, and significant criminal offenses have been placed in national security positions?

Merton W. Miller is a retired Colonel and Federal Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, and former Senior Executive with the Federal Investigative Service and National Background Investigations Bureau. His duties assignments included tours as Security Advisor White House Military Office, Assistant Director Office of the Secretary of Defense Counterintelligence, Commander AFOSI Region 6, Director Counterintelligence Field Activity Counterintelligence Campaigns, Associate Director for the Federal Investigative Services, and Deputy Director for NBIB.

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