Earlier this month Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.) introduced the Modernizing the Trusted Workforce for the 21st Century Act. This legislation calls for set specific timelines for the Department of Defense to begin processing all government-wide security under existing goals to be set in law. It would also call upon the intelligence community to explore the possibility of creating a portable security clearance for trusted contractors.

The bill calls for an overall modernization of the what Warner calls an “antiquated security clearance system.” Warner argues this legislation would reduce the background investigation backlog, improve processing times, and thus ensure that the government has the trusted workforce necessary to perform its national security and public safety measures.

“The current process for granting security clearances to government personnel and contractors is in dire need of reform,” Sen. Warner said in a statement. “In light of new and emerging threats, this bill reflects the changes we need to make to this 70-year-old system to adjust to the increasing availability of data, new technologies, and a more mobile workforce so that we can maintain the pipeline of trusted professionals that the nation requires.”

There have been efforts already to make progress on the backlog; and the National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB), which is under the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), has reduced the number of pending investigations from an all time high of more than 725,000 in April of this year down to 600,000.

A security clearance Reform Effort 70 years in the making

Efforts could be improved, and this bill has called upon the president and Congress to prioritize the modernization of the personal security framework to improve the efficiency, effectiveness and accountability of the security clearance process. It further calls out how the current system lacks the efficiencies and capabilities to meet the current threat environment and thus hampers the ability to recruit and/or retain a trusted workforce while capitalizing on modern technologies.

Warner has called for efforts that would change those policies and processes to improve the security clearance system, which he said should be vetted through a council (Security, Suitability, and Credentialing Performance Accountability Council) to ensure standardization, portability and reciprocity in security clearances across the Federal Government.

However, the bill does not directly offer suggestions or guidelines as to how the process could be made more efficient and instead has merely called upon the White House to create a plan that would address the backlog, while directing the Director of National Intelligence to reassess the SF-86 form that precedes a background check. The bill calls for DNI, along with OPM officials to take the lead in reducing the complexity of the security clearance process.

Among the changes that the bill has called upon would be to reduce the number of security tiers from five to three, while connecting the clearance to an individual rather than the agency. In this way clearance would “travel” with that person even if he/she changes agencies. Information sharing amongst agencies and contractors could also help reduce security risks.

In addition to reform mandates, Warner’s bill has called for specific timetables for investigations including that 90 percent of secret clearances should be processed within 30 days; while 90 percent of top secret clearances should be processed within 90 days. The bill also called upon a two week deadline for 90 percent of determinations regarding reciprocity, while the bill would set guidelines that 90 percent of clearance holders would not be subject to reinvestigations on preset schedules.

The bill, which draws on provisions that were contained in the Intelligence Authorization Act, has the support of leaders in the government contractor sector. That act was unanimously reported out of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in June of this year.

“While the security clearance backlog is slowly getting smaller, we need urgent steps to ensure the U.S. government and U.S. companies doing critical national security work can recruit, hire, and retain talented individuals to work on classified programs,” said Eric Fanning, president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association, in a statement. “AIA supports the Modernizing the Trusted Workforce for the 21st Century Act of 2018 as a positive step towards resolving the security clearance backlog and positioning us to employ the workforce essential to ensuring our security into the future.”

Writing for Defense One this week Fanning also noted how implementing these recommendations could help industry and the government to get the right people into the right positions. He noted how the U.S. aerospace and defense industry, which employs some 2.4 million American workers, now competes with Silicon Valley and STEM-focused industries to recruit the best talent.

Fanning’s sentiments were echoed by David J. Berteau, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, who said in a statement, “The current backlog and wait times add risk to government missions, contract performance, and the ability of both the government and contractors to recruit and hire the talent we need. Enactment of the Modernizing the Trusted Workforce for the 21st Century Act will reduce these negative impacts while maintaining integrity in the system and better protecting our national security.”

At present time no companion legislation has been introduced into the House, but the main points of the bill are included in the Intelligence Authorization Act, which is currently being negotiated in conference between the two chambers.

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com.