With all of the chatter around White House interim security clearances and how long some staff members have been working under an interim clearance determination, the natural question is – does an interim clearance expire? By very definition, an interim security clearance is meant to be temporary – a way to get critical national security positions filled faster as a final security clearance determination is made. But with a backlog of nearly 700,000 pending cases, and processing times for a Top Secret security clearance at roughly a year and a half, an interim clearance can be in place for longer than you’d expect.
Critics have argued the national security risks of allowing individuals to work on an interim clearance for so long – but there’s a policy consideration, as well.
Does an Interim Clearance Expire?
“Two or three years ago DoD policy established a one-year limit on interim clearances with a possibility of a six-month extension,” said William Henderson, a retired federal clearance investigator, and president of Federal Clearance Assistance Service (FEDCAS). “This policy was restated in DoD Manual 5200.02 (April 2017) at paragraph 7.16.a(2).”
So, if interim security clearances are technically supposed to expire within 12 to 18 months, why are there currently cases of interim security clearances existing for a year, or two, or more?
“The government routinely ignores its own requirements,” quipped Henderson.
Keep in mind, an individual working on an interim security clearance for a year or more is the exception, not the norm. (The ‘norm’ are the roughly 3.5 million current security clearance holders doing quality and critical work each day). But it is another symptom of the problem born out of current delays in security clearance processing times.
“They’re taking longer than ever before. People undergoing the process, in a lot of cases, they don’t want to wait around for the jobs they’re hired for,” said Evan Lesser, Founder and President of ClearanceJobs.com. “In a lot of cases also they’re dropping out of the process They’re spooked by the delays. They’re just tired of waiting. The times to investigate people for clearances have been increasing over the past several years.”
A few of the reasons behind those delays? Lesser notes:
- The decision to fire beleaguered background investigations provider USIS and the gap in contract investigator capability created.
- A lack of trained background investigators/the difficulty in hiring and onboarding new investigators.
- Archaic tools and archaic processes involved in the background investigative work itself.
- Heavy workloads for current investigators, and unclear directives.
It’s been pointed out throughout the past several years that policy itself is one of the key issues hindering the security clearance process. Director of the National Background Investigations Bureau, Charles Phalen, has referred to the national security policy framework as like a ‘1947 Chrysler‘ – one the federal government is still driving.
Even when policy changes do happen, they’re slow. A recent update to the adjudicative criteria was more than 10 years in the making. And these were relatively minor, procedural changes – not sweeping policy overhaul.
Create a policy, ignore a policy
Considering the arduous path toward approved policy, you would think the federal government would be eager to actually follow its own processes, once created. But that’s a part of the problem of policy that takes a decade to finish: by the time you roll it out, you may not want it. When the push was made for caps on interim clearance capability, the government was trying to stop the next Edward Snowden – not fill thousands of cleared positions left in limbo.
Five years ago, the federal government released a policy requiring periodic reinvestigations (PRs) for moderate and high risk public trust positions. Henderson notes this policy is not being enforced across agencies.
Another policy brought about in the post-Edward Snowden, insider threat era was the decision to move PRs for Secret clearance holders to once every five years. This is another policy which has not been followed. In fact, in response to the backlog, the decision was made to temporarily move PRs for Top Secret security clearances to every six years, versus every five years. This temporary policy change has been in effect for more than a year.
There’s plenty of room for debate as to whether or not PR timelines and working under an interim clearance for months creates national security risks or not. What is absolutely clear is that it creates confusion.