Agencies may not meet goal of speeding security clearances

Industry officials predict December deadline could be tough even for swiftest agencies.

Government contractors and potential federal employees anticipating that the wait for security clearances will get shorter in December may be disappointed, industry officials are cautioning.

The 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act requires federal agencies to cut the wait for clearances to a maximum of 120 days for at least 80 percent of applications by the end of 2006. The deadline is a warm-up for 2009 deadlines that will require security clearances to be processed in 60 days and all Top Secret clearance requests to be completed in 120 days.

But Trey Hodgkins, director of defense and intelligence issues for the Information Technology Association of America, said he doubts agencies will be up to the task.

"They are not even close to where they should be," he said. "They aren't anywhere in the ballpark."

Multiple intelligence sources said that when requests for a Top Secret clearance or for access to Sensitive Compartmentalized Information are handled through the Office of Personnel Management, they can take up to 18 months to process.

An OPM spokesman, however, challenged that estimate, saying the agency's average time for an initial clearance investigation was closer to 150 days, or five months. "In fact, for Top Secret clearances with priority handling, the average processing time is only 53 days, [and] for all other clearance levels with priority handling, it's 64 days," said OPM spokesman Peter Graves.

Graves said OPM will meet the upcoming deadlines and also will comply when the target time frames tighten in 2009. The personnel agency, which handles clearances for most federal agencies, is nearly finished addressing the initial backlog it inherited upon taking over background investigations from the Defense Security Service in 2005, Graves said.

A second logjam hit in late April when, due to funding shortages, DSS stopped sending security clearance requests to OPM, causing a backlog of yet to be determined proportions. DSS partially resumed processing requests last month.

Multiple sources said the 10 agencies handling their clearance requests independently of OPM are faster, but still may not meet the December deadline. The National Security Agency, the CIA, the FBI, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the Secret Service are among the agencies that conduct background checks and grant clearances on their own.

NSA sought, and received, autonomy to process its own clearances after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a former manager at the agency said. NSA urged the Defense Department to grant a waiver to allow contract investigators to complete background checks so it could issue clearances faster, according to the source. NSA's contractors and full-time hires go through the same, or sometimes more stringent, checks and standards as those conducted by OPM in as little as six months for a Top Secret clearance, the source said.

An NSA contractor who requested anonymity also said the agency is processing Top Secret clearance requests within six months. Neither NSA nor the Office of the Director of National Intelligence would comment for this story.

There is a push on Capitol Hill to speed the process by giving more intelligence agencies the ability to grant clearances independently of OPM.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., a member of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, has tried twice to push through a provision that would grant the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency the same authority as NSA and the CIA. Currently, she said, the average wait time for NGA contractors' clearances can be as long as two years.

"The security clearance backlog … is a problem for the agency, for the intelligence community and for our contractors," she said.

Hodgkins said independently operating agencies enjoy a quicker clearance-granting process because of the sheer volume of requests that OPM and DSS have to handle. OPM processes an estimated 1.8 million clearance applications annually.

Kathy Dillaman, OPM's deputy associate director of human resources at the Center for Federal Investigative Services, said the 10 agencies beyond OPM's authority process about 170,000 clearances annually.

"Some of these agencies would not want the number of their clearances known," she said, adding that she could not specify how many requests are processed per agency.

Hodgkins advocated re-evaluating the clearance process and said an overhaul to implement a fully automated system may help bring all agencies up to speed. One hindrance, however, is the requirement that signatures be delivered physically, rather than allowing a scanned copy of a signed form to be used, he said.

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