National Security

US to halve backlog for security clearances by spring, top official says

Applicants to the CIA routinely must wait 545 days to receive security clearances and proper vetting, says Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat who is ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Such delays hurt recruitment, discouraging talented people from applying.
Applicants to the CIA routinely must wait 545 days to receive security clearances and proper vetting, says Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat who is ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Such delays hurt recruitment, discouraging talented people from applying. AP

The federal government expects to slash a 600,000-case backlog of people waiting for security clearances in half by springtime, the No. 2 official in the U.S. intelligence community said Tuesday.

The backlog is caused in part because the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies have not had common standards, but new uniform standards will reduce the investigations required when employees move agencies or advance in their careers, said Susan M. Gordon, principal deputy at the nation’s Directorate of National Intelligence.

Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, applauded Gordon’s goal, noting that the clearance backlog was itself a threat to national security by hindering recruitment to fill intelligence jobs.

He cited both distrust between agencies and delays in completing clearances, adding that applicants to the CIA can wait a year and a half to be cleared and vetted before starting employment.

“What’s kind of evolved is a balkanized system where in a sense each agency determines what their standards are and they feel they can’t trust their sister agency to do the job,” Warner said, speaking outside a forum in Arlington, Virginia, sponsored by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a nonpartisan group, and George Mason University’s National Security Institute..

Warner said that “a real goal” should be enshrined of completing 90 percent of secret clearances within 30 days and that same percentage of top-secret clearances within 90 days.

The crushing backlog in security clearances climbed to as high as 740,000 cases last year, and those getting emergency interim clearances included a handful of people who subsequent investigations revealed were wanted for murder, rape and other crimes.

Headway is already occurring through fairly simple changes, said Letitia A. Long, chairwoman of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance.

“Not all information is in electronic form right now,” Long said. Investigators doing background checks currently must “go to Small-town USA and ask the sheriff or police chief, ‘Does this person have a criminal record?’”

Now, once the investigators get an answer, they can input the information in an electronic tablet rather than take notes on paper, speeding the flow of information, Long said.

Warner said investigators are being deployed across the United States for the most routine of processes in background checks, rather than handling some queries by quicker electronic means.

Warner said he believes academic institutions and law enforcement agencies should be given incentives to provide such information quickly, without requiring a visit from a traveling investigator.

Warner said he found it absurd that Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, had to undergo a new clearance procedure in early 2017 when he took up his post upon leaving the Senate, where he served on the Senate Intelligence Committee and routinely heard top-secret information.

Other changes under consideration would be one to allow “portability” of clearances, meaning that an employee or government contractor given a clearance at one agency or for one contract could take that clearance level to a job at a different agency or on a different contract.

“How do we move from a position of no trust to a position of trust when people move?” asked Kevin M. Phillips, president and chief executive of ManTech, a Fairfax, Virginia, company that offers homeland security and defense services to the federal government.

The White House said it was considering pulling the security clearances for several former top officials, many of whom have been critical of President Trump. Here’s what they’ve said.

Tim Johnson, 202 383-6028, @timjohnson4
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