The National Defense Authorization Act for the year 2020 is inching its way through Congress, and a provision in the Senate version offers hope to clearance holders that job mobility and true reciprocity—that is, the clean and quick transfer of clearances between agencies—might finally be achieved.

The key section in the Senate bill begins: “It is the sense of Congress that to reflect the greater mobility of the modern workforce, alternative methodologies merit analysis to allow greater flexibility for individuals moving in and out of positions that require access to classified information, while still preserving security.” It goes on to order a ninety day study of the “requirements, feasibility, and advisability” of a concept called “clearance in person.”

SECURITY CLEARANCE AS PORTABLE BENEFIT

The upshot of clearance in person is that a clearance holder can keep his or her eligibility to access classified material, computers, and facilities, for up to three years after said eligibility would otherwise end. Moreover, regardless of employment status, a clearance and background investigation would remain current if the clearance holder enrolls in a continuous vetting program. A worker could move in and out of cleared positions without worrying about the punishing loss of a clearance.

“I believe that a clearance should be portable, similar to health care or a retirement benefit, derivative of the individual’s inherent trustworthiness,” says Senator Mark Warner, who is responsible for the clearance in person text in the bill. “It should not be tied to the agency or company he or she works for, which restrict their professional mobility.”

Once the NDAA is signed into law, the report due to Congress in ninety days will examine the requirements for enrolling in continuous vetting; look at privacy safeguards, security, and counterintelligence risks; and describe how to pay for the thing. Details can be found in section 10607 of the Senate bill.

“The Intelligence and National Security Alliance has developed a similar idea,” Sen. Warner tells ClearanceJobs. “Clearance in person would greatly enable ‘reciprocity,’ allowing people to move more readily, as well as reflect the more mobile nature of the 21st century workforce.” There are details to be worked out, he says, including the funding mechanism, “but this should be our collective ambition.”

POOR IMPLEMENTATION FRUSTRATING CLEARANCE HOLDERS

Reciprocity is a long-sought concept in the clearance community. Last year, the director of National Intelligence ordered it into force across government agencies. As ClearanceJobs reported last month, however, reciprocity has been poorly implemented overall, costing the U.S. government an estimated $8 billion and 90,000 contractor labor-years. “This is a historic problem,” Charlie Allen, of the Chertoff Group and the INSA Security Policy Reform Council, told Lindy Kyzer, the senior editor of ClearanceJobs. “I couldn’t get reciprocity within the government much less if you were trying to move people from one contract to another, even those who were within scope, who were contractors.”

Last year, ClearanceJobs spoke with David Shedd, the former acting director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He pointed to a continuous evaluation program and reciprocity as solutions to the clearance backlog that has long hindered government and industry—the very solutions the Senate NDAA seeks to find ways of incorporating and improving upon. With reciprocity, Shedd said at the time, “you as an individual get the clearance, and whether you are a contractor today—say your company is Raytheon—you can go over to Lockheed contracts because you carry your clearance with you.”

He explained, “The clearance isn’t with the contract. It’s with the contractor.” The same sort of system would hold true for clearance holders in government agencies, adding a renewed nimbleness to the cleared workforce. For that to happen, however, a lot of work needs to be done. “The system itself is not working,” he said in the same interview, describing a system that sometimes takes months for someone who already holds a Top Secret clearance to move between agencies in government.

THE ROAD AHEAD

The National Defense Authorization Act is a bill passed annually by Congress and signed into law by the president. It is separate from an appropriations bill, which doles out money to the Department of Defense. The authorization act explains in detail how that money should be spent, and by whom, and under what conditions. This year, the process has been hobbled by unusually antagonistic levels of partisanship, with every Republican in the House of Representatives voting against it. (For contrast, it passed the Senate in June with a vote of 86-8.)

The House bill does not include any mention of clearance in person. It does, however, demand that the Office of Personnel Management update Congress quarterly and for the next five years on the state of the security clearance adjudication backlog.

With separate versions of the NDAA having passed both houses of Congress, the bill moves now to a conference committee, where differences will be ironed out behind closed doors. The agreed-upon bills will then return to their respective houses for a vote, and once passed, will be sent to the president to be signed into law.

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David Brown is a regular contributor to ClearanceJobs. He is currently at work on his next book, One Inch From Earth, which tells the story of scientists who study the outer planets of the solar system. He can be found online at https://www.dwb.io.