This afternoon, Senator Mark Warner led the U.S. Senate Committee on Intelligence open hearing on personnel vetting modernization. Senator Warner has made personnel vetting a key interest in his career – to the point that he quipped, “my colleagues think I’m obsessed with the topic.” His keen interest in the system is due to appreciating the importance of the security clearance process in broader intelligence issues. Senators on the panel shared thoughts, concerns and questions. While topics like classified materials landing outside a SCIF by public officials or Chinese spy balloons surfaced, the core discussion focused into vetting timelines, reciprocity, system breaches, and polygraphs.
Security Clearance Timelines and Targets
The first witness, the Honorable Jason Miller, Deputy Director for Management, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) shared, as chairman of the Security Clearance, Suitability, and Credentialing Performance Accountability Council (PAC), key accomplishments in the works. His opening remarks focused on four key areas, but his closing remark to the panel at the end of the hearing signaled a significant shift toward greater transparency in vetting numbers: the move to reporting on all security clearance processing times, and not just the fastest 90%.
“Substantial progress has been made,” emphasized Miller. Today, the number of pending security clearance investigations sits below its target level of 200,000 and the time it takes to process Secret and Top Secret security clearances has been reduced by more than 40%. “That’s allowed for transformation,” he said.
Miller also explained the core focuses driving OMB’s reform:
1. Personnel Vetting
This process underpins the American public. Implementing reforms like Trusted Workforce has allowed agencies to identify problematic behavior more quickly.
Miller shared that substantial progress has been made. The background inventory for security clearances has remained below target level, and Secret and Top Secret clearance processing has been reduced by 40%. The new system has helped us move away from prior issues and get applicants where they need to be faster.
3. Future Work
Miller confirmed that there’s more work to do in order to ensure a complete and successful adoption of the phased development of the National Background Investigation Services (NBIS). In 2023, personnel vetting has moved from eQIP to eApp, and we need to ensure agencies are prepared for enrollment of Public Trust positions into Continuous Vetting (CV).
Miller confirmed that more cooperation is needed from everyone – including agencies and contractors, as well as, backing from congress.
Intelligence Community Vetting Improvements
The Honorable Stacey Dixon, Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence (PDDNI) shared in her opening remarks the benefits of CV and its successful deployment. She noted that agencies have been certified as compliant and are now able to identify concerning information faster and intervene sooner to help employees. The goal is to continue to be better aligned as agencies and improve the applicant experience. Hiring is a major focus for the IC, and a key piece of that is the personnel vetting process.
The Honorable Kiran Ahuja, Director, Office of Personnel Management (OPM) said they’ve been focused on reducing time to hire, offering a better vetting experience, and increasing mobility for the federal workforce. Last May, the new personnel vetting and standards went to agencies, and she highlighted three improvements:
- Ahuja noted that technology and record checks now make it easier to make interim decisions, which is a key piece of getting employees onboarded more quickly.
- She shared that the vetting improvements now assess risk in real time.
- Lastly, Ahuja noted that the new three-tiered structure makes the overall process more streamlined.
Ahuja noted that now, onboarding determinations can be made for the majority of Top Secret clearances in just 30-45 days and 25 days for Secret. Trusted workforce vision helps this improvement and makes the experience better. She also highlighted that the new Personnel Vetting Questionnaire (PVQ) replaces four questionnaires, and it gives clear instructions and plain language questions for applicants. Ahuja highlighted the benefits for applicants with the new PVQ, noting that depending on risk levels, applicants only fill out to a certain level. Once they need a higher clearance, applicants fill out more.
Senator Warner praised the interim secret clearance processing times, noting that the panel had also improved the overall processing time goal for a full Top Secret clearance granted to just 75 days. Dixon noted that while the IC is pushing for those numbers, they cannot have an applicant begin work until a full determination is made.
Fighting Against Breaches
The OPM breach and ensuring the security of personnel data remains a focus of reform efforts. The Honorable Ronald Moultrie, Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security (USDI&S) said that building the new personnel system moves at the speed of risk. He noted that the team for NBIS is working on a Zero Trust architecture. Moultrie said they are building “something that looks at the data and people and credentialing, along with multifactor, looking at behaviors and alert systems.”
Senator Marco Rubio asked for confirmation that NBIS has better security than the former system used by OPM. While Moultrie noted that he wasn’t familiar with the ins and the outs of the old system built decades ago, he reiterated that the new system is being built with the latest frameworks, including a cloud-based architecture. He also noted that they also have individuals on the team who understand breaches and threats and are building with that mindset. Moultrie said, “Nothing is breach proof, but we’re in an exponentially better place.” Agile software development is ensuring the system is better responds to the known risks and issues.
Reciprocity – AKA Transfer of Trust
The panelists spent a good portion of time trying to understand the barriers to reciprocity, the intricacies of the classification system, as well as, agency requirements. Senator Warner was worried about employees who are cleared with one agency and can’t easily move to another. But at the same time, he also raised the issue of getting C-Suite leaders for contracting companies the security clearances needed to understand work being done at their company.
As the discussion circled back to reciprocity multiple times, Dixon explained to the panel that the processes for IC and DoD are different, but they both follow the same types of rules and regulations. She confirmed that while a Top Secret clearance is the same for all agencies, there are more steps in the IC or between IC agencies that have to be taken in the vetting process. She explained that in the IC, applicants need to have access to Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) and that process takes longer. Additionally, polygraphs are required, so it’s not always a one-to-one transfer.
Dixon pushed for the term “transfer of trust” to be used. While a clearance holder may be able to transfer their current level of trust to another agency, more vetting can be needed, depending on the agency workforce requirements.
Moultrie agreed and clarified that there are additional access differences, with additional criteria to get into some systems.
Star of the Show: Improving Processing Times
The cornerstone of the hearing and the key takeaway is the success of efforts to reduce the overall time required to process security clearances. The Trusted Workforce 2.0 effort to reduce the number of security clearance tiers from 5 to 3 has also created a framework for improvements in overall security clearance processing times. The new benchmarks offered during the panel are 25 days for a Tier 1 (Public Trust eligibility), 40 days for a Tier 2 (Secret and High-Risk Public Trust eligibility), and 75 days for a Tier 3 (Top Secret eligibility). While those figures don’t represent the Intelligence Community, they do represent approximately 85% of the cleared population, and the full 100% of reporting – not the fastest 90%.
“The current system only measures the 90% fastest,” said Miller. “So we have a huge tail that we’re not measuring. We’re trying to measure everything so we can manage it and make sure that we’re really driving transformative impact.”