The Government Security Clearance Backlog is Harming America’s Military Preparedness

The Numbers

America’s national security relies on appropriately cleared personnel, yet it is now estimated that more than 700,000 federal civilians, military personnel, and industry employees cannot perform their duties because the background investigations for their security clearances have not been conducted. Recently one company reported that more than 75% of its requests for investigations have been delayed for more than 18 months and another 10% have been in process for more than 24 months. This is not an isolated example; it exists in many companies. Too often, the delay in getting a clearance can disrupt a career, delay a program, and encourage companies to ‘poach’ cleared employees from each other, thereby creating turbulence and inefficiency in the labor market.

If we do not develop both short- and long-term remedies to this backlog, doing business in the national security arena will become slower and more expensive, and our military’s ability to carry out its mission will continue to be impaired.

What are we doing?

  • Defining the issue: A multi-association coalition made up of AIA, NDIA, ITAPS and PSC has interviewed the directors of the Defense Security Service (DSS), the National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB), and the DOD-CAF (Consolidated Adjudications Facility), along with several Congressional committees and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), to fully understand the roots of the backlog, and to propose solutions.
  • Highlighting the issue: In May, AIA and NDIA co-hosted our Spring Industrial Security Committee (ISC) Conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., where directors of DSS, NBIB and DOD-CAF described their organizations’ efforts to reduce the backlog; the ISC will tackle this issue again at its Fall Conference in San Diego, Calif
  • Next steps: The investigation process requires timely appropriations for investigations to commence at the rate required to significantly reduce the backlog. NBIB was created less than a year ago on Oct. 1, 2016, and since that time, has been making great strides to hire the appropriate number of federal and contract investigators to process the mountain of investigations. However, Congress is currently considering transferring the background investigation responsibility for DOD cases from NBIB to DSS. AIA and the other members of the multi-association coalition oppose this “phased transfer” because it unintentionally introduces significant risk into ongoing efforts to eliminate the clearance backlog. Even if the transition were seamless and resources were increased for both NBIB and DSS, the proposal fails to mandate fundamental reforms vital to improving the efficiency of the clearance process and increasing security. This is particularly concerning as it relates to improved reciprocity and streamlined clearance standards, where additional stovepipes will make reform that much more difficult.

Near-Term Goals

As we and the other associations develop a set of final recommendations, AIA believes that the government must pursue four near-term goals:

  • Streamline clearance standards, replacing the complex, non-uniform and often opaque standards that lead different departments and agencies to demand different forms and investigation types for three different issues: access to classified material, fitness for employment and credentialing. Consistency will not only streamline the investigation process, but also promote reciprocity.
  • Create a single system of record that accepts reciprocity, regardless of the agency or department that holds the clearance, and can easily access an individuals’ credentials.
  • Develop an updated, technologically enabled, investigation and re-investigation process that is transparent and accountable that will enable all industry partners to be part of the security clearance process by empowering them to collect and transmit digital information, thereby removing the physical collection burden from the process.
  • End the ‘first-in, first-out’ approach that ensures a continuing backlog. Investigating and adjudicating mission-critical clearances first is an imperative. It may also help to move forward on low-risk investigations while more time-consuming clearances are delayed.

Changing Assumptions

These are important first steps, but they will be for naught if concurrent, long-term fixes are not pursued. Periodic reinvestigations, while necessary, only provide a scheduled snapshot. Because both external and internal threats are non-linear, security clearance reinvestigations should be as well. To reduce future possible backlogs, continuous evaluation of high-risk security clearance factors (e.g.: credit anomalies, excessive travel, foreign contacts, etc.) should be automated and populated. To treat all clearances the same is to incorrectly assume that every holder is the same. Utilizing continuous evaluation and introducing updated technology, including robust insider threat tools, will move the United States government to a more efficient, continuous and thorough process, thereby increasing security and efficiency.

National security work – and therefore, the challenge of hiring and retaining cleared personnel – is undertaken by the public and private sector alike, so these more substantive solutions must have buy in from the private sector. As innovation has increasingly moved to the private sector, the enabling of private companies to serve as active partners in the security clearance process should be a shared venture as well.

While AIA generally supports additional resources for the federal agencies involved, additional funding will only be a band-aid on a process that needs an end-to-end overhaul. The clearance backlog is slowing innovation, disrupting the economy and harming readiness – it must be resolved in a way that doesn’t make matters worse.