Though agencies and industry have good ideas for reducing the security clearance backlog and improving processing times, there aren’t many concrete plans or timelines in place to implement these solutions, according to testimony at a March 7, 2018, Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.
“We’ve had a doubling of the costs. We have everybody using the term, ‘continuous evaluation,’ yet we seem to have no commonality on that or how we’re going to get there. We have the notion of increased technology, but, again, I don’t see a timeline presented,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.
Charlie Phalen, director of the National Background Investigation Bureau, said that of the 710,000 investigations in inventory, 164,000 are record checks or credentialing support, 337,000 are initial investigations and 209,000 are reinvestigations.
And though NBIB has made efforts to bring their processing power back up to snuff since the loss of a major contractor that contributed to investigations, agencies are still working through longer processing times for both employees and contractors.
“Some quick facts: Since 2014, the time it takes to obtain a clearance has more than doubled. In our industry, the average time it takes to get a TS/SCI clearance, a top secret clearance, is over a year. The time it takes to get a secret clearance is eight months,” said Kevin Phillips, president and CEO of ManTech.
“Since the end of 2014, we estimate that approximately 10,000 positions required from the contractor community in support of the intelligence community have gone unfilled due to these delays.”
According to Warner, the costs of conducting a background check have nearly doubled in recent years.
Such delays and costs have caused the Government Accountability Office to put the security clearance process on its High Risk List, which designates programs that are in need of major improvements or overhaul.
Brenda Farrell, director of defense capabilities and management issues at GAO, said that agencies have yet to implement fully 2012 guidelines for federal investigative standards and continuous evaluation of cleared employees. In addition, the deadline set for governmentwide performance measures for investigation quality was missed in 2010 and a new milestone was not set.
One crucial part of the problem, according to witnesses, is the security clearance process’s archaic processes for uncovering information, which are slow and require more manpower than technology-based solutions.
“Investigators have to go in person and write notes, rather than use tablets. They have to go through the mail to send a request to get an education check. They physically have to visit a person, versus using social media or other access points to get things done, when today’s technology allows for a much more rapid way of getting decisions done without, in our view, changing the trustworthiness of the individual,” said Phillips.
Compounding the problem, when an investigation is completed and a clearance issued, some agencies will not respect the work done by another agency and require contractors and employees to go through the investigation process over again when moving to different projects.
Jane Chappell, vice president of intelligence, information and services at Raytheon, suggested a “four ones” strategy: one application for processing applications, one investigation that continuously looks for new information, one adjudication that is respected by all agencies, and one clearance that is recognized across the government.
Though reciprocity in clearances is required by statute, that requirement has failed to stick in many cases. Because current statute requires reciprocity “with exceptions” and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has not established those exceptions, agencies can decide whether or not to do their own investigation.
Industry panelists also called for more information sharing with government, as companies often have little monitoring capability over employees working at federal locations.
“When it’s on our own networks, we have control on what we monitor and, you know ... where we see risk and how we escalate that and where we investigate,” said Chappell. “When our employees sit on government facilities and use government networks, there needs to be more information sharing on what we can do jointly, because we don’t have the ability to monitor those networks.”
Information sharing could also speed the initial investigation process.
“It’s clear to me from both our current work and my last experiences in life that industry collects an awful lot of data before they put somebody in for clearance — before they even decide to hire somebody. And we need to find a way to leverage the work that they have already done, accept it and build it into part of the process and not have to go back and ask those same questions,” said Phalen.
Government should also seek to continuously monitor employees and contractors through social media and other instances of public record, which would decrease the timeline for and number of reinvestigations, according to witnesses.
However, the Office of Management and Budget, which chairs the performance accountability council responsible for initiating many of the changes and improvements to the investigation process, declined to attend the hearing.
“So the one person in the government that’s in charge of this issue, that’s a very important issue, isn’t here, because they — did they have to wash their hair? What’s the deal?” said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine.