The topic of interim security clearances continues to lead the debate over the security clearance process. Security clearance reform efforts throughout the past 10 years have focused on the lack of reciprocity – you may be granted a security clearance by the Department of State, but it will still frequently take months or years to be accepted by the Department of Defense, even if a new investigation isn’t required. Over the past three years, the focus has been on the size of the security clearance backlog and lengthening security clearance process timelines.
Today, thanks to quotable comments by Defense Security Service Director Daniel Payne, and the announcement that nearly a hundred White House staffers are still operating under interim security clearances, interim security clearances are the security clearance sub-topic drawing the most scrutiny.
Like most topics related to the security clearance process, even a simple question such as ‘how many individuals are working under an interim security clearance?’ is nearly impossible to answer. The reason why data is so hard to gather is similar to why reciprocity is such a problem. While the National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB) currently conducts 95 percent of security clearance investigations, interim security clearances are issued by individual agencies. That means getting a comprehensive number of interim security clearances would require the reporting of figures from the various agencies, from the Department of Homeland Security to the Department of Energy.
In recent congressional testimony, however, we got an idea of the numbers through a significant interim security clearance population – defense industry.
Last year we issued 80,000 interim clearances to DoD industry, said Payne. The number of current DoD industry interim security clearances issued? 58,000. Payne noted those interim security clearances have been held anywhere from six months to two years.
In contrast to prior statements, this time Payne noted the issue isn’t the fact that interim security clearances are being issued – it’s the length of time individuals are working on them. The Department of Defense has issued guidance that an interim security clearance should expire after six months. That’s guidance it hasn’t yet followed.
Who Gets Issued an Interim Security Clearance?
Interim security clearances are like overall clearance eligibility – they’re not issued based on the individual, they’re based on the position – the government decides if a specific position should be eligible for an interim security clearance, and then access is granted on a position by position, agency by agency basis.
Interim security clearances are more common for Secret security clearances, but government representatives emphasized interim security clearances are issued at both the Secret and Top Secret level.
What’s the clearance denial number? Payne testified that 486 individuals within the DoD industry population had their clearances denied last year. Of those, 165 individuals had been issued interim security clearances. That number may seem high. Until you consider the 2.5 million investigations conducted by the NBIB last year (95 percent of them from the DoD).
Officials emphasized the need to improve processes to mitigate risk – but the government also has to be realistic.
“There’s always going to be risk involved with the investigation process,” testified Payne. “There’s always going to be risk with the security clearance process. What we have to decide is now much risk we find acceptable.”