Magazine article National Defense

Troubled Security Clearance Program Needs Fixing

Magazine article National Defense

Troubled Security Clearance Program Needs Fixing

Article excerpt

For the past decade or more, the defense industry has witnessed an alarming decline in the federal government's ability to process the background investigations needed to approve security clearances for the industry's civilian workers. The clearances are required before those employees are allowed to perform critical national security work.

Not only are investigations slow, but the entire clearance program lacks standardization and reciprocity among defense and intelligence agencies, creating a diverse bureaucracy that is reluctant to embrace change.

As background, the government regularly conducts security investigations on military personnel, civilian employees of the government and those working for private defense contractors to determine if it is clearly in the national interest to grant them access to classified information and whether that access should be continued. Such investigations look into an individual's behavior, conduct and activity, past and present, in order to determine the subject's of trustworthiness, honesty, character, loyalty, reliability and financial responsibility.

Industry must obtain and renew security clearances for its workforce in order to perform important and vital work for the government. The backlog for such cases is significant and growing. On average, it now takes more than a year to conduct a background investigation on a contractor's employee, adjudicate the result, and grant, deny or approve the continuation of a top secret clearance. This waiting time is unlikely to be reduced drastically in the near term.

For years, the government has assured industry that improvements are underway and that average completion times would reach 120 days for top secret and 90 days for secret. This goal has not been fulfilled. Extended processing time significantly impacts industry in a number of ways. For example, it increases the competitive labor costs for new hires and keeps cleared employees with outdated investigations from working on important programs.

Further compounding the recent increase in the backlog was the planned transfer of responsibility of background investigations from the Defense Security Service to the Office of Personnel Management in October 2003. While some aspects of this transfer have taken place, such as the training of DSS investigators on the OPM clearance investigative system, a decision on whether OPM will assume full responsibility for DSS investigations is still pending.

A growing concern within industry and Congress is that the clearance program is partially broken. The timeframe to conduct investigations and get individuals cleared is unacceptable.

The current system also lacks sufficient capacity to conduct the growing demand for backlog of investigations. It does not employ the technology and processes required today to get the job done.

The system is bifurcated, allowing agencies to establish their own clearance and investigative requirements, and to ignore the basic tenet of reciprocity, whereby one federal agency recognizes security clearances granted by another.

While fixing responsibility, seems fundamental to repairing the problems, industry should know that there is some good news to go along with the bad.

The Defense Department routinely has been issuing interim secret clearances to industry employees who meet specified criteria based on an initial review of their personnel security questionnaire. These reviews are performed by the processing center for industry, the Defense Industrial Security Clearance Office, within DSS. …

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