More than half of federal agencies don’t trust each other to properly vet security clearances for employees transferring between departments, according to a survey by an independent government watchdog.
Though agencies are bound by the same rules when it comes to evaluating employees for a security clearance, the Government Accountability Office found that many agencies feel the need to double-check an existing clearance. That risks duplicative work and prolonging the process for government employees awaiting approval to work in classified environments.
“Of the 31 agencies we surveyed, respondents for 17 stated that they, at times, do not trust other agencies’ security clearance process, which can affect their decisions to grant reciprocity,” according to the GAO report published Monday.
Federal agencies are generally required to accept personnel vetting determinations that other agencies have previously made, except in certain circumstances. This reciprocity can promote personnel mobility and help reduce skills gaps. However, mistrust between agencies and a desire to reinvestigate or adjudicate unnecessarily can delay the process at a time when government is trying to speed it up.
More than 4 million federal employees and contractors hold some level of privileged access to do classified work with the U.S. government. While that has been a highly coveted professional asset and a source of reliable, pre-vetted employment for the military and civilian agencies, the government nonetheless has had difficulty keeping up.
Since 2018, the security clearance process has been on GAO’s high-risk list. That same year, the backlog of pending cases reached a high of 750,000. Knowing it had a problem, the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency, in partnership with the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, developed Trusted Workforce 2.0, an end-to-end overhaul of the technology and philosophy behind granting and maintaining clearances. Those agencies are principally charged with overseeing the government’s vetting program.
Despite ongoing reforms, some employees may still see their clearances get held up when they switch agencies. It’s not always true that having a clearance automatically means an agency will accept it, no questions asked.
For example, some agencies told GAO they might require an additional polygraph, updated interview or clarifications to an employee’s profile before honoring a clearance.
And even when two agencies are on the same page about an employee’s cleared status, aging technology can undermine processing of those decisions.
About 70% of respondents to GAO’s survey reported that incomplete and inaccurate information in IT systems was the “most significant challenge” they faced when granting reciprocity. Data an agency might need could be held in three different repositories: one with limited access just for the intelligence community, one for non-defense agencies and one for the Pentagon.
“[Office of the Director of National Intelligence] officials told us that, under their existing system, agencies transfer data from their internal IT systems to spreadsheets and email those spreadsheets to ODNI,” per the report. “... This approach is vulnerable to human error.”
OPM also doesn’t have a clear measure of the extent that agencies grant reciprocity, thus making it harder for them to oversee these determinations.
Officials responding to GAO’s report said there is good news: the National Background Investigation Services system coming under Trusted Workforce 2.0 aims to consolidate disparate data pools and round out missing data to make reciprocity more seamless.
However, as of August, DCSA has yet to hammer out cost estimates and a project timeline for this effort.
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.