Lawmakers want to make the security clearance process more transparent and streamlined in an effort to shrink a backlog of more than 700,000 federal employees, applicants and contractors awaiting background checks for government jobs.
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved legislation on Wednesday that would require the National Background Investigations Bureau to report the backlog of executive branch employees waiting for background investigations. The SECRET Act moved to the full Senate with additional provisions from Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Ron Johnson, R-Wis., aimed at standardizing the background check process across government and updating clearance requirements for various federal positions.
Under the new legislation, NBIB would submit reports every quarter for five years detailing the number of parties waiting for secret and top secret security clearances, and the figures on the average time it takes to conduct each investigation. The bill also calls for the White House to report its process for granting clearances to Congress.
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More than 700,000 civilian employees, defense personnel and federal contractors are currently waiting for government security clearances, NBIB Director Charles Phalen said at an Intelligence and National Security Alliance conference in September. As federal officials tightened the background check process in the aftermath of the Edward Snowden leaks and Office of Personnel Management breach, clearance applications piled up, leaving potential employees and contractors waiting months to start work.
“Too many skilled Americans are sitting around waiting for the federal government to approve their clearances to start working to protect our national security,” said Rep. Steve Knight, R-Calif., the original sponsor of the bill in the House. “This bill fights for a better and more transparent system to get rid of harmful backlogs.”
The average time to complete background investigations is “roughly four months” for those seeking the equivalent of a secret clearance and “nine to ten months” for those seeking top secret clearance, Phalen said. However, The Washington Post reported that in May, one federal official claimed it could take up to 450 days to grant a top secret security clearance, an increase of more than six months from April 2016.
The lengthy clearance process drastically reduces agencies’ ability to respond rapidly to new challenges and impedes them from fully executing their missions, said Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president and counsel at Professional Services Council.
The problem has become particularly pronounced in national security spheres, where a large number of employees must hold security clearances. Some groups have started granting less thorough interim clearances, allowing employees begin working while they undergo more thorough background checks. However, this could open the door for people with especially unsavory histories to gain access to sensitive government information.
“The security clearance [backlog] is going to put us at increased risk in coming years,” said Charlie Allen, chairman of the Security Policy Reform Council at the Intelligence and National Security Alliance and a former high-level official at the CIA and Homeland Security Department. “The pace of [outsider] threats is accelerating and our ability to stay up with adversary technology is not. The country’s security has to come first and we have to build that trusted workforce.”
OPM was mandated to periodically publish figures on the backlog until June 2017, when Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney rescinded the rule in a sweeping rollback of “duplicative and burdensome reporting requirements.” Though getting rid of the report fit the Trump administration’s broader goal of cutting bureaucracy and building a more efficient government, it’s prevented anyone from taking responsibility for the pileup of clearance applications.
"Right now, nobody owns the problem, so we’re constantly guessing at the magnitude of [the backlog],” said Chvotkin. “Bringing transparency to the problem gets it out of the shadows.”
Chvotkin noted reporting alone will do little to solve the problem. He acknowledged the importance of transparency but said the government must take meaningful action to begin chipping away at the backlog by doubling down on the provision added in the McCaskill, Tester, Johnson amendment.
That amendment would require agencies to begin reporting on the steps they’ve taken to implement reciprocity and continuous evaluation in their clearance process.
As it stands, federal employees must undergo a new background investigation every time they move from one agency to another. Under a reciprocity standard, specific types of clearances would be transferable between agencies, much like one state accepts driver’s licenses issued in any of the others.
Employees also receive periodic security checks even if they stay in these same agencies. But unlike the current investigations that start from square one every time, continuous evaluation would allow agencies to monitor workers’ personal information as it changes, creating a more efficient system that doesn’t waste resources on verifying unchanged, redundant information, according to Chvotkin.
The bill also would require agencies to update the clearance levels needed for various positions. Chvotkin said he hopes this reevaluation would drive agencies to reduce the number of positions that require clearance, which would then decrease the sheer volume of clearances NBIB must handle.
Still, he would like to see the bill go further in pushing the government to take explicit steps to solve this problem.
“I’d prefer to see an action-oriented bill,” he said. “I don’t have any objection to reporting—Congress needs to know the information—but I think Congress already knows the information. I would not want reporting to be a substitute for action.”