Leadership Vacancies Have Slowed Security Clearance Reform, Officials Say

The Trump administration’s relatively slow pace in filling vacancies during the transition has placed the interagency effort to reform security clearance processing “in a bit of a bind in terms of facilitating leadership,” the nation’s top counterintelligence chief said on Wednesday.

Nonetheless, the intelligence community, which Congress has tasked with leading the reform effort, has made progress in implementing “continuous evaluation” of security clearance holders, according to Bill Evanina, National Counterintelligence Executive and director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center. That’s important for rooting out insiders who may pose security risks.

Evanina spoke Wednesday at a conference by the nonprofit Intelligence and National Security Alliance at the Washington Convention Center. His office has launched a new public awareness campaign against insider threats. Congress, the White House and specialists across government are in broad agreement about the need for finding a common structure that balances the requirement for rapid background checks with thoroughness to flag insider threats, he said.

The current background check backlog stands at 700,000, noted Charles Phalen, director of the nearly year-old National Background Investigations Bureau. It has grown precipitously since 2014, when investigators found serious problems with the Office of Personnel Management’s contractor-dependent system. “We inherited a couple of train wrecks,” he said, but the “inventory,” as he prefers to call it, has actually shrunk in recent weeks.

Phalen said 700,000 “is still too high.” The number reflects about 300,000 applicants seeking clearances for the first time, while another 160,000 are seeking employment at the Defense Department, 70,000 in private industry and the rest in civilian agencies.

Continuous Evaluation

The goal, Phalen said, is to conduct secret level clearances within four months, and higher-level top secret clearances within nine to 10 months. The key is to conduct periodic reinvestigations in partnership with the intelligence community “in a measured way that doesn’t compromise our virtue, but gets things done in a more productive way,” he said.

Tools for such continuous evaluation include new electronic job applications that reduce applicant mistakes and allow electronic adjudication among agency evaluators. In addition, Phalen’s office is working with the Defense Information Systems Agency to allow “storing and capturing the lives of individuals” in a system that “becomes their permanent record” from Day One on the job, Phalen said.

But progress comes hard. Phalan spoke of the “myth of the analyst sitting in a basement clicking on a name” to learn all of the relevant troublesome events such as drunk driving arrests or divorces. In reality the needed data on an applicant’s trustworthiness is “in shoeboxes, pdf’s, and uncontrolled” databases such as those in law enforcement and educational institutions.

Continuous evaluation is designed to create “real time” alerts daily, monthly or quarterly, rather than waiting for the five or 10-year schedules for automatic reinvestigation, noted Dan Payne, director of the Defense Security Service. Though individuals who hold security clearances are supposed to report any such life-events, they don’t always do so. If someone is arrested for drunk driving the day after their last background check, the trouble might not be detected for years.  

Using the seven “core databases” supplied by the intel community, the Pentagon consults 60 to 70 Defense-related databases for continuous evaluation. The effort is “extremely successful” and ahead of the rest of government, Payne said. Out of 500,000 enrollees (expected to rise to a million by January), Defense security has revoked the clearances of 48 people along with several hundred others who had withheld relevant information that needed clarification, he said.

For those in the top secret category, it took only 14-15 months, “exactly what we’re looking for” Payne said.

Payne was asked by moderator Beth McGrath, a former top Pentagon management official now managing director for federal strategy and operations at Deloitte Consulting, whether those disturbing visits to neighbors by officials conducting background checks had outlived their usefulness in the age of social media data. “We won’t get away from talking to people,” Payne replied, noting that when he was at CIA handling the Aldrich Ames espionage case, the pro-Russian traitor’s drinking and lavish spending habits were pointed out by personal acquaintances.

Risky Interim Approvals

Interim approvals of new applicants, giving them access to classified information based only on an FBI probe and credit check, were not allowed at CIA, Payne said, but “at DoD, they’re a necessity” due to the workload.

But expedience comes with a cost. Payne has had to revoke interim clearances after sometimes grievous information comes to light, either through a background check or other means. “On a weekly basis, I have murderers who have access to classified information, I have rapists, pedophiles and people involved in child porn—I have all these things at the interim clearance level and I’m pulling their clearances on a weekly basis,” Payne said. “That is the risk we are taking. We are giving those people access to classified information with only the minimum amount of investigation. That’s why bringing down the timeline on the [background] investigation process is so vital and important to national security.”

“The game changer,” Payne said, will be the establishment of governmentwide standards on what are the best sources for determining who is trustworthy.

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