National Security

Buried in backlog, Feds give top-secret clearances to murderers, rapists

Marines assigned to the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit embark the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge in Norfolk, Va., in August. The Defense Department has some 100,000 employees on temporary clearances awaiting full security reviews.
Marines assigned to the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit embark the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge in Norfolk, Va., in August. The Defense Department has some 100,000 employees on temporary clearances awaiting full security reviews. U.S. Navy

Under a crushing backlog in the issuing or renewing of security clearances, federal authorities have given interim clearances to people they later discovered were murderers and pedophiles, a senior government official said Wednesday.

“This is very, very dangerous,” said Daniel E. Payne, head of the Defense Security Service, a federal office that oversees the granting of temporary clearances.

Payne said roughly 100,000 people hold interim clearances while working for companies with Defense Department contracts or at 13,000 cleared facilities and plants around the country and as they await a full comprehensive background investigation.

“I’ve got murderers who have access to classified information. I have rapists. I have pedophiles. I have people involved in child porn,” Payne said. “This is the risk we are taking.”

Payne spoke on a panel about the backlog in security clearances at the Intelligence & National Security Summit in Washington.

The backlog “grew precipitously” in 2015 and 2016, and stands at near record levels today, said Charles S. Phalen, director of the National Background Investigations Bureau, a federal service provider under the Office of Personnel Management.

The backlog encompasses roughly 700,000 cases, but only 300,000 or so people are seeking a first-time clearance to enter government service, Phalen said. The remainder may be federal employees or contractors seeking a periodic renewal of a security clearance or a change in their clearance level, he added. They stay in federal jobs.

Payne, a career counterintelligence officer with the CIA, said the concerns about interim clearances only affect the Defense Department and its associated industrial base, not the nation’s intelligence agencies, where temporary clearances are never granted.

“I grant the interim clearances for the DOD. I also take the interim clearances away,” Payne told a reporter after the panel ended. Asked how many cases his office had discovered of people with a murder in their background, he said: “It’s more than several. I would say less than a dozen.”

One case happened just a month ago when a man with an interim clearance got in an argument at a bar. “He pulls out a gun and shoots them in the face and kills them,” Payne said.

Applicants obtain interim clearances after filling out a lengthy government form, known as an SF-86, and undergoing a credit check and an initial FBI background check.

The full, comprehensive clearance involves far deeper research, including interviews with neighbors and work associates, deeper financial inquiries, checks of family history and probes into overseas travel.

“You’re looking on average at close to a year for a top-secret clearance,” Payne said, adding that a lower level secret clearance takes an average of nine months.

He said the backlog is so great the Pentagon has little choice but to offer interim clearances to keep weapons development programs at full steam.

“If we did not give these individuals interim clearances, the production of these programs would shut down,” Payne said. “It would have a horrific impact.”

The backlog in security clearances soared in 2014 after one of three major contractors involved in conducting background checks, US Investigations Services LLC, lost its government business amid allegations that it had bungled and falsified results.

Other officials bemoaned bureaucracy in their attempts to make the clearance process more agile and up-to-date, including in the types of questions asked on the SF-86 form.

“It took eight years to change one question on the SF-86,” said William R. Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, the nation’s top agency for catching foreign spies.

Investigations entail sending agents to the homes of neighbors of an applicant.

“I had FBI agents all over my neighborhood and my neighbors got very worried that I was in trouble,” said Beth McGrath, a former Pentagon management officer who now is managing director of federal strategy of Deloitte Consulting.

Yet checking social media accounts of applicants has not been fully embraced, she said.

“Some people think, ‘Oh, you’re infringing on my privacy,’” said McGrath. “This is where the process of government sometimes feels like it takes more steps than it should because you have to actually change the policy to say we’re going to allow social media information to be part of the background investigation.”

Several officials said they expected the backlog to diminish as federal agencies and departments embrace a process of continuous evaluation of employees rather than periodic reappraisals every five to 10 years. The Defense Department now has 500,000 employees enrolled in the constant vetting program, a number that should grow to one million by year’s end, Payne said.

Tim Johnson: 202-383-6028, @timjohnson4