No, the Government Doesn't Have a Problem With Murderers Getting Security Clearances

It has a recruitment problem, recent comments by a senior Defense official notwithstanding.

As someone who has been writing broadly about the defense industry, and specifically about hiring practices for individuals with security clearances, there’s a recurring theme to the challenges—the government struggles to attract and retain individuals in national security careers.

Congressional panels have convened to analyze the issue. Legislation has been proposed. Policies have been changed to address things from pay to telework. But a recent comment by the Director of the Defense Security Service highlights an issue that may be more salient to the government’s hiring issues—employees are sick of being kicked in the pants by their leadership. Publications, including Government Executive, reported the comments last week:

“I’ve got murderers who have access to classified information. I have rapists. I have pedophiles. I have people involved in child porn,” said Defense Security Service Director Daniel Payne, speaking before an audience at this week’s Intelligence and National Security Alliance symposium. “This is the risk we are taking.”

If you’re struggling to attract individuals into the workforce, this probably isn’t going to help. It’s also misleading.

Look at the Policy

Payne’s comment was made in the course of a discussion about the use of interim security clearances to get recently-hired individuals on the job as quickly as possible as the National Background Investigation Bureau digs its way out of a 700,000 background investigation backlog.

Payne implies the backlog is the reason interim security clearances are being issued to murderers today. But interim clearances weren’t born out of the backlog. The system has existed for three decades. Interim clearances aren’t part of some government risk-mitigation strategy that says it’s worth the risk of issuing clearances to murderers in order to keep weapons programs running. Interim clearances are simply one part of the security clearance process. And they probably don’t rank among the top 10 problems with the system, if you ask most industry representatives.

The fact is, no one with a criminal record should be able to get an interim security clearance under today’s policies. Period. Around 2012, the government announced it would be requiring additional information before issuing interim security clearances. Among the new criteria before a favorable interim clearance determination is made is a favorable FBI criminal history (fingerprint check). Because these are government years, not real people years, the policy, which was announced in 2012, wasn’t implemented until August of 2016. But that still means that anyone being issued an interim security clearance today should pass a criminal background check before they are allowed to work.

What’s more, agencies can rescind an employee’s access to classified information at any time.

National security policy has borne out time and again the executive authority in the process. This isn’t your typical employment law, where an entity must show due process, or wait for a preponderance of evidence before taking administrative action. In the interest of national security, DSS can remove access from anyone. Rapists and pedophiles should be moved to the top of that list.

The Bigger Picture

The government has never been particularly forthcoming with data concerning the issuance of interim clearances, so it’s hard to refute what Payne says. But if his comment that roughly a dozen felons have somehow obtained interim security clearances is accurate, that’s approximately .004 percent of the eligible population. That’s a far cry from what some headlines are implying.

The government faces a much bigger problem than criminals slipping through the cracks. They face the problem of no one wanting to work for the government. If you have a security clearance, you’re a target. Between the Office of Personnel Management hack and the Equifax breach, those with a security clearance know their information is available to the highest bidder. They don’t just have to worry about their credit, they have to worry about their online reputations and their safety.

It doesn’t motivate your workforce when you imply that you’re pulling from the bottom of the barrel to get them. It’s also a seriously inaccurate characterization of the caliber of the workforce.

Perhaps Payne was trying to expose the need for more resources, or reduce the use of interim clearances. It certainly won’t encourage young people to pursue government careers. When I attempted to get a clarification from DSS (hoping he’d been misquoted), I received the usual reply—they’re not available to comment.

Lindy Kyzer is the editor of and a former Defense Department employee.