Backlogged Security Clearances Plague DOD, Contractors, But OPM Sees Progress

By | February 18, 2008 | Satellite News Feed

Another 20 Percent Of Reviews May Take Longer; 540 Days Taken On One Case

Sluggish Reviews Harm National Security, Cause Short Staffing; Employers Raid Each Other’s Shops For Workers With Clearances

Huge delays in performing background clearance investigations on some prospective Department of Defense (DOD) and defense contractor employees is costing the Pentagon and contractors money, endangering national security, leaving critical programs short staffed and creating a zero sum game of employers raiding each other’s shops for workers who already have clearances.

That was the dismal picture presented by several witnesses at a House Armed Services Committee readiness subcommittee hearing.

But the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which performs or has hired companies to perform background checks for DOD and contractor security clearances, says OPM is doing a fine job, and in fact is doing better than is required under current guidelines.

Clearly, those worried about the situation, including Democratic and Republican, and government and contractor, speakers outnumbered those who see things as well in hand.

"It does not take a rocket scientist to know that every delay in properly processing clearances can hurt our national security," said Rep. Nancy Boyda (D-Kans.), who chaired the subcommittee hearing. Those delays also "add to the cost of classified work for the government," she said. "To me, this is unacceptable."

On the GOP side, the outlook was the same.

At a time when personnel have just been arrested for slipping secret information to Chinese intelligence services, weakness in screening defense and contractor workers for security reliability cannot be countenanced, according to Rep. J. Randy Forbes of Virginia, ranking Republican on the subcommittee.

"We do not know the full impact of these failures, but it is clear that these compromises may have seriously or gravely damaged the national security of our country," he said.

While OPM says it has hastened processing of background checks, Forbes said as recently as last year the record was poor.

"According to the" Government Accountability Office, or GAO, the watchdog agency, "it took an average of 276 days to complete end-to-end processing of a top secret clearance in 2007," Forbes noted. That means an employee waiting to move into a classified-work job has to wait and wait, "a full nine months this employee may not fully contribute on the job site."

Forbes said OPM may be part of the problem, not part of the solution. OPM several years ago took over much of the background-checks work for security clearances from DOD, with the idea this would speed up the process.

Instead, "the transfer of personnel security investigations functions from the Defense Security Service (DSS) to the Office of Personnel Management seems to have — at least in the onset — made things worse," Forbes said.

He said not only is there an "enormous backlog of hundreds of thousands of pending investigation," there also are glitches with "interagency coordination, incompatible [Information Technology] systems, and coping with the transfer of 1,600 staff members from DSS to OPM."

Although the administration has taken some steps to resolve the problem, those steps are insufficient, he said.

"While it appears that increased staffing at OPM has reduced the backlog and improved clearance processing time, more needs to be done to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the clearance program," Forbes said.

Much of the problem can be traced back to "insufficient funding for security clearances" and other problems, he said, adding that that "is the last thing we need when we are still dealing with a backlog of requests."

President Bush last week signed a memo ordering a plan to speed up the clearance process, to be provided to him by the end of April, Boyda observed.

Gregory Torres, director of security in the office of the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, also told the lawmakers that while DOD and OPM "have made significant progress," further progress is needed. "While we recognize our improvements to date, we are by no means satisfied with the current length of time it takes to process clearances," he said.

The goal is to have 90 percent of all decisions on whether to give someone a security clearance determined within 20 days, Torres noted. And that doesn’t cover some portions of the clearance check process, focusing only on the time consumed for the investigative and adjudicative actions, not end-to-end elements of the clearance process. Timelier application submissions, moving applications faster between agencies and cutting handling time would help, as well, Torres said.

True, he said, getting job applicants to submit security clearance applications electronically has helped shorten background check processing times. Fingerprints also can be submitted electronically, providing faster processing than the old prints-on-paper routine.

But, he said, more is needed.

"While we must continue to improve our current clearance process, we recognize that efficiencies will only get us so far," Torres told the lawmakers. "Unless there is a concerted effort to change what we do and not just how we do it, we have not done our jobs."

Similarly, Jack E. Edwards, acting GAO director for defense capabilities and management, told the subcommittee that while DOD has instituted reforms in how it handles clearances, "DOD has not yet demonstrated the effectiveness of these changes."

The department "must address additional long-standing challenges or issues in order to improve the efficiency and accuracy of its personnel security clearance program for industry personnel," he said.

He noted that the risk here is serious: "continuing delays in determining clearance eligibility can result in increased costs and risk to national security," with sluggish clearance work meaning the employees waiting for that clearance may not be able to perform their jobs, because "they do not have access to classified materials."

Another point, Edwards said, is that federal agencies must begin telling each other how they perform background checks or have them performed, and how the agencies then clear personnel for classified work, because as things now stand, some agencies won’t recognize and accept security clearances given to prospective employees by other agencies.

"Reciprocity occurs when one government agency fully accepts a security clearance granted by another government agency," he explained.

For contractors, the situation isn’t rosy, even after some improvements.

Ben Romero, Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] business development director, spoke for the Security Clearance Reform Coalition, a group including nine organizations such as the Aerospace Indsutries Assocaition, National Defense Industrial Association and the Associated General Contractors of America.

The bottom line is that when contractors seek employees, it can take an interminable time to obtain clearances for them. "Secret clearances still took more than 200 days and Top Secret clearances took more than 300 days to process" last year, he said, measuring from the time the worker was permitted to fill out the security clearance application until the clearance actually was granted.

Some secret clearances have taken as much as 540 days to process, or well over a year, Romero said.

But Kathy L. Dillaman, associate director for the federal investigative services division in OPM, said that rules governing this area speak of average times to process clearance applications, and OPM is exceeding guidelines.

Current law "requires 80 percent of background investigations for initial security clearances to be completed within an average of 90 days by 2006," she noted. "As of today, OPM is exceeding this statutory goal.

"In fact, of the 586,569 initial clearance investigations OPM received during fiscal year 2007, 80 percent were completed in an average of 67 days," or 92 days for the 64,722 Top Secret clearances sought and 63 days for the 404,534 Secret/Confidential applications processed.

"There is no longer a backlog of initial clearance investigations due to insufficient manpower resources," she said.

But Boyda noted that averages can hide wide extremes in the actual number of days consumed for reviewing a given application. Also, while 80 percent of investigations may have been completed in an average of 67 days, Boyda asked what about the other 20 percent that aren’t completed in that average time?

Dillaman, however, replied that one wouldn’t wish to have OPM make a mistake in reviewing applicants for clearances, and therefore some lengthy time may be required to complete an investigation.

Live chat by BoldChat