Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., told a witness: "You seem to have confirmed our biggest fear. We’ve become so obsessed with the process that there is very little preoccupation with the outcome.”

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., told a witness: "You seem to have confirmed our biggest fear. We’ve become so obsessed with the process that there is very little preoccupation with the outcome.” Alex Brandon / AP

Senate Panel Seeks Answers on Clearance Backlog

A government watchdog group put the process back on its high-risk list after pending actions exceeded 700,000.

Lawmakers on Wednesday grilled officials and stakeholders in the process for investigating job candidates for security clearances over a backlog that has more than tripled in four years.

As of last month, more than 710,000 investigations remain unresolved. That’s an increase over 581,200 cases in April 2017, and a backlog of only 190,700 in August 2014. In January, the Government Accountability Office added the federal government’s security clearance process to its High Risk List of federal programs that require broad transformation or specific reforms.

The Senate Intelligence Committee called Wednesday's hearing on the security clearance process to discuss the challenges associated with the antiquated system, and efforts to improve it on a structural level.

Kevin Phillips, president and CEO of government contractor ManTech, said the current wait for people seeking jobs with agencies and federal contractors is unacceptable.

“The time to get a top secret clearance is over a year, and for a secret clearance, the wait is eight months,” he said. “Top professionals are in high demand across the nation. They should not have to wait over a year to get a job, and they’re increasingly unwilling to deal with the uncertainty associated with this process.”

He said the clearance system is hamstrung by processes that in some cases have not been updated technologically since they were first implemented after World War II.

“A number of agencies have their own processes set up, and they are still very manual,” Phillips said. “They were established during the Eisenhower administration, and investigators still have to go in person and write notes, instead of using a tablet, and they have to go by mail to send a request for an education check. They have to physically visit a person rather than use social media or other access points.”

David Bertau, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, a contractor trade group, said seemingly simple processes, like check-up reinvestigations or requests to switch to a job at a different agency, significantly contribute to the backlog.

“How can you be cleared as acceptable for one part of government, but not another part?” he asked. “The record shows 23 agencies, but there are a lot of subcategories within each agency. The Department of Homeland Security has more than a dozen different reciprocity determiners.”

Auditors said that although there are plans to improve how the government investigates someone ahead of providing them a security clearance, like a process that could replace periodic reinvestigations called continuous evaluation, they often are not implemented.

“The original milestone [for continuous evaluation] was missed in fiscal 2010, but no revised milestone has been set for completion,” said Brenda Farrell, director of defense strategic human capital management at GAO. “[The] potential effects of continuous evaluation are currently unknown, because the future phases of the program and agencies’ resources are unknown.”

“You seem to have confirmed our biggest fear,” said Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. “We’ve become so obsessed with the process that there is very little preoccupation with the outcome.”

Charles Phalen, director of the National Background Investigation Bureau at the Office of Personnel Management, which coordinates most federal security clearance investigations, stressed that many of the cases in the overall backlog figure are not related to first-time clearance seekers.

“In 2017, we completed 2.5 million investigations across all investigative types,” he said. “As of today, there are 710,000 [pending] investigative products, but these include record checks, suitability and credentialing investigations, and national security investigations. The top end number is much greater than the number waiting for their first security clearance to work with or on behalf of the federal government, and 164,000 are simple record checks.”

An additional 209,000 of the pending cases are for periodic reinvestigations, Phalen said.

Defense Department officials said that with the relaunch of the Defense Security Service to handle its own background investigations, as laid out in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, some strain will be taken off of NBIB and there would be a significant expansion of the practice of continuous reevaluation instead of reinvestigations.

“We execute the DoD continuous evaluation program, and from my perspective it has been greatly successful and is the way of the future,” said Daniel Payne, director of DSS. “We’ll have to go down this route if we want to make the necessary changes to make this process better . . . utilizing continuous evaluation and automated processes.”

Garry Reid, director of defense intelligence in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, said the Defense Department will implement the first phase of its plan to investigate security clearance requests for defense personnel as early as October of this year. He said the department anticipates a full roll-out within the next three years, and noted that the issue of agency reciprocity is at the top of officials’ minds.

One notably absent stakeholder from Wednesday’s proceedings was a representative from the Office of Management and Budget. Deputy Director for Management Margaret Weichert is the chairwoman of the President’s Suitability and Security Clearance Performance Accountability Council, an interagency group overseeing the security clearance process.

“Is there one person who has the responsibility for fixing this problem, and who are they?” asked Sen. Angus King, I-Maine.

“I would point to the chair of the Performance Accountability Council,” Farrell said. “That person has the authority to provide direction regarding the process and to carry out those functions, but I believe that person declined to be here.”

“That’s kind of ridiculous, isn’t it?” King said. “The one person in charge of this issue, which is a very important issue, isn’t here because what? Did they have to wash their hair?”

“I can’t speak for OMB, sir,” Farrell said.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.