Report cites progress in security clearance processing

Agencies are making "significant progress" in determining security clearance eligibility as required by a 2004 intelligence reform law, according to a new report from the Office of Management and Budget.

The report from OMB's Security Clearance Oversight Group assessed compliance with the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which aims to simplify, standardize and quicken the process of obtaining and renewing security clearances.

Several government reports have indicated that the lengthy process for obtaining such clearances wastes millions of dollars and endangers national security by leaving thousands of defense, homeland security and intelligence jobs unfilled for more than a year.

Under the law, agencies must ensure that 90 percent of applications get adjudicated within an average of 60 days after investigators receive the forms. Within that time, the investigations phase could take 40 days at the most, and the process of deciding whether to accept or reject the application could take a maximum of 20 days.

Agencies were given five years to meet the new time limits, but had an interim deadline requiring them to process 80 percent of security clearance requests within 90 days for investigations and take 30 days for decision-making.

Federal officials said in July that they would face challenges in meeting the interim deadline, which was set for the end of December 2006. But the OMB report found that agencies served by the Office of Personnel Management, which conducts 95 percent of background checks, did make the deadline, with 80 percent of initial investigations and adjudications processed in 118 days.

OPM estimated in November 2005 that 8,000 full-time federal employees and contract workers would be required to handle meeting the goals of the intelligence law, with additional resources needed to meet the backlog of clearance applications. The report found such staffing levels at OPM rose from 7,819 in 2005 to 8,590 in 2006. In January 2007 the staffing level stood at 9,367.

The report cited progress in the eQIP electronic clearance submission process, which can reduce the overall time to get a clearance by two to three weeks. Use of eQIP has increased significantly, with all participating agencies planning to move fully to the technology this fiscal year, the report found.

But the report also noted that "having investigative timeliness and adjudicative timeliness for initial clearances at the levels called for by [the intelligence reform law] does not mean we are most assuredly granting security clearances as quickly as desired or called for."

It indicated that the timeliness of reinvestigations has not been addressed, solely because the improvement effort focused on individuals required to have initial security clearances to perform work.

Furthermore, the report highlighted that OMB did not include in its study a measure of the time it takes OPM to hand off applications to the agency investigating them, or to send investigations files to the adjudicative agency. The report also said that agency performance should be analyzed for longer periods so "the information can be considered representative of what industry and agency employees can expect."

OMB recommended "appropriately aggressive goals" for 2007, which would involve performing slightly better than the 2006 goal level and ensuring that agencies are reforming the entire process, beyond the time it takes to conduct the investigations and adjudications.

But Evan Lesser, director of ClearanceJobs.com, which matches clearance-holding job seekers with top hiring companies, said even though the report cites progress, "reality" indicates that the backlog has "stayed the same or gotten worse." Lesser said his site's Web log provides real-world cases of job-seekers' problems and delays in obtaining security clearances.

Lesser also said OMB Deputy Director for Management Clay Johnson has proposed a solution that would involve eliminating certain background checks. Among those would be interviews with candidates' neighbors and character references that are cleared by other parts of the investigative process.

Lesser said he believes that though Johnson's proposal may help improve the timeliness of clearance processing, it could be dangerous. "You're robbing Peter to pay Paul," he said. "Do you want to have someone who does not have a full background check to be entrusted with national security secrets?"

Johnson delivered the administration's proposal to Congress on Thursday.

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