The Staggering Numbers Behind the Security Clearance Backlog

There’s progress, but the fact remains that the number of investigations sitting before the National Background Investigations Bureau is overwhelming.

Is the backlog in security clearance background investigations finally getting better? The 2018 third quarter progress report released by the White House notes the National Background Investigations Bureau is on track to reduce the number of pending investigations to a steady state by 2021. While the three-year timeline may not seem impressive, it’s one of the first signs the NBIB has a plan to tackle the problem.

Consider that a March 2018 GAO report was highly critical of the personnel security program, and specifically called out NBIB for failing to develop a plan to reduce the backlog. In the months since, NBIB has launched several initiatives it hopes will help improve its ability to process security clearances more quickly, as well as prioritize cases effectively. In addition, in the past two years NBIB has increased the number of background investigators from 5,843 to over 8,400 today.

The quarterly report, compiled by the Security Clearance, Suitability, and Credentialing Performance Accountability Council, paints a picture of progress. Progress aside, the fact remains that the number of investigations sitting in front of the NBIB remains staggering. A separate report on the backlog of pending security clearance investigations was released in September of 2018. The Secret Act of 2018 requires NBIB and the Director of National Intelligence to provide a separate quarterly report to Congress. This report breaks down the size of the backlog in more detail than other reports:

Defense Employees and Contractors Backlog

  • 282,489 initial national security investigations (84,289 for Top Secret and 196,768 for Secret)
  • 177,586 periodic reinvestigations (47,607 for Top Secret and 93,306 for Secret)

Other Federal Employees Backlog

  • 235,861 initial national security investigations pending completion (65,110 for Top Secret and 170,751 for Secret)
  • 136,464 periodic reinvestigations pending completion (67,013 for Top Secret and 69,451 for Secret)

Other Federal Contractors Backlog

  • 77,719 initial national security investigations (32,877 for Top Secret and 44,842 for Secret)
  • 81,257 periodic reinvestigations (52,390 for Top Secret and 28,867 for Secret)

What do these numbers show? The backlog of pending initial investigations is still over 500,000, and the number of pending periodic reinvestigations is at nearly 400,000. Why is there a slight disparity between these figures and the numbers reported by the Performance Accountability Council? NBIB explains that its inventory is “made up of a variety of investigative products . . . Not all of these cases should be considered backlog.” With new requests continually coming in, there will always be a certain number of pending investigations—six figure numbers of pending investigations are nothing new. But figures above 500,000 signal a program with a problem.

The Federal Hiring Problem

Why is Congress interested in a seemingly mundane issue like the number of pending background investigations? Because the 500,000 pending cases represent 500,000 new federal employees, contractors and military personnel whose ability to work is impeded or limited. Some individuals are able to obtain interim security clearances and begin working, but others are left waiting a year or more before being able to begin work at all. Interim security clearances present their own issues. Intended to be a temporary option, some individuals are working on interim clearances for upwards of a year. And even when an interim clearance is granted, many special access programs will not allow an individual to begin work until a final clearance determination is made.

The backlogs and delays have caused many defense contractors to implement what is called a Blue Sky approach to hiring. That means making conditional offers of employment to a huge swath of candidates, and then awarding the position not necessarily based on who is your top choice for the position but who can obtain the clearance first.

Other creative approaches include bringing on college interns and obtaining their clearances—with the hope they return for full-time jobs—as well as paying overtime to existing cleared workers or even cross training cleared employees so they can take over other positions. You know the processing timelines are a problem when it’s faster to retrain an employee for a skill than it is to obtain a security clearance.

The defense authorization for 2019 included several provisions to help address the continued delays, including a provision to help expedite clearances for more mission-critical positions, as well as a ‘clearance in person’ concept that would allow an individual to retain his clearance after leaving a cleared position. Currently, security clearances are attached to positions, not individuals. While it’s possible to transition from one cleared position to another, various criteria have to be met, including that candidates have a current investigation and no more than two years since leaving the last cleared position.

The defense budget authorization requires the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to present data on the feasibility of such efforts, not necessarily to institute them. Regardless of whether any of the current reforms are initiated, one thing should be clear: It will be years before the backlog truly gets better.

That’s bad news for the government, bad news for industry, and bad news for anyone considering a career with the federal government.

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