The Senate Intelligence Authorization Bill Gives Hints to 2023’s Security Clearance Policy Priorities
There are a few issues highlighted in the bill that are of particular relevance to the government workforce.
The executive branch has the authority to lay out security clearance policies and procedures, but that doesn’t mean the legislative branch doesn’t have any say in how the government issues clearance eligibility and maintains a qualified workforce. In fact, if the executive branch is the head, Congress is the eyes, looking forward and making sure the government’s security program stays on its feet.
One key congressional entity with deep ties into the security clearance process is the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Intelligence Authorization Act for 2023 includes several provisions that highlight current issues within the security clearance process and hint toward policies the executive branch may implement to address them. While primarily viewed as a funding vehicle, the IAA is also a policy one – the issues highlighted by the committee are frequently pain points in the process that both industry and government agencies are looking to address.
Title V of the IAA specifically addresses personnel and security clearance matters. Within the intelligence community, in particular, the two are closely intertwined. With nearly every direct support role to the IC requiring some form of security clearance or suitability determination, addressing workforce issues also requires addressing the vetting process used to onboard national security personnel.
While there are 11 issues highlighted in the IAA, there are a few of particular relevance to the government workforce.
- Requiring the IC to establish a methodology for how long it takes to onboard personnel.
The intelligence community releases its security clearance processing figures, but critics have long accused the agency of ‘cooking the books’ when it comes to overall onboarding timelines. Security clearance processing times are provided only for the fastest 90% of applicants currently. There is also debate concerning when the timelines start, with many applicants reporting their applications sit on the shelf for months in a holding pattern before the official start of an investigation – and a timeline for security clearance processing.
The IAA requires the director of national intelligence to look at onboarding – not just the security clearance process – and create a path for faster timelines for agencies with averages over 180 days.
- Polygraph accountability and timeliness.
Critics of the polygraph are everywhere, but intelligence community officials have long emphasized the polygraph isn’t going away – it’s simply too effective at getting applicants to offer up information that wasn’t previously disclosed (it’s not necessarily great at detecting lies). Policies have been updated to ensure the polygraph is not a determinative aspect of the security clearance process (an inconclusive polygraph alone should not result in clearance denial). The IAA requires the comptroller general to conduct an assessment and submit a report on the administration of polygraphs. It also requires the director of national intelligence to issue standards concerning the timeliness of security clearance polygraphs. Unlike the overall security clearance process, the amount of time the government takes to conduct employment related polygraphs is not released – and many applicants report languishing for months waiting for a polygraph. The polygraph backlog is an issue that has been exacerbated by COVID.
- Prohibiting security clearance denials related to drug use.
The DNI has made major inroads in helping to eliminate marijuana use stigma as an issue for clearance applicants. With marijuana legal in most major defense hiring states (from California to Maryland), the government has long had issues with attracting and onboarding entry-level talent, in particular, who could meet prior requirements of one-year of abstinence prior to applying. The IAA prohibits security clearance denials based on pre-employment drug use.
- Option for clearances for key personnel not tied to a contract.
The security clearance process remains the purview of the federal government. Agencies issue clearances, and government contractors can struggle to obtain clearances for support personnel when they can’t connect that person to a specific contract. A section of the IAA requires the DNI to issue a policy allowing companies to submit applications for clearances for individuals who may perform key functions – but not necessarily be tied to a specific contract. The policy opens up a small degree of flexibility for both agencies and industry to have personnel working across contracts, or supporting overhead or headquarters missions.
The provisions of the IAA emphasize the security clearance reform function performed by the legislative branch. As the government implements its Trusted Workforce 2.0 initiative, Congress will help keep the government’s eyes on the prize – aiming toward continued reductions in the time it takes to onboard personnel, creating policy provisions that reflect the overall workforce and national trends, and requiring accountability for long-held elements of the clearance process like polygraph examinations.