The Security (Clearance) Dilemma

The Pentagon ( source )

The Pentagon (source)


At countless graduation ceremonies across the country, speakers glowingly exclaim, “oh, the places you’ll go!” to thousands of eager-eyed college graduates. However, if those students want to begin a public sector career that requires security clearances, they are about to enter a grueling process created by the current clearance backlog. The federal government must clear its backlog by creating more efficient clearance investigation practice, or it will lose the next generation to the private sector.

The numbers are startling: according to a report from US Comptroller Gene Dodaro, “more than 700,000 people are waiting to have their government clearances processed”. These people come from all backgrounds and ways of life, but they all desire to serve the government using their own unique talents.

In Congress, the security clearance backlog is an issue that has brought politicians from both sides together. Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) recently stated that he would bring up the issue in the Senate Judiciary Committee, while Senate Democrats sent a letter to the White House asking for an investigation on their security clearance procedures. This search has created more questions than answers, but a common theme has appeared: bureaucratic procrastination. This procrastination is caused by the lack of vision on the part of investigative officials and the administrative clutter of inter-agency communication.

Former Department of Defense employee Lindy Kyzer remarked, the “fever pitch of reform interest…[has] rarely translated to actual reform”. A Government Accountability Office report found several “operational issues” that are due to the lack of “continuous evaluation” and a “reciprocity policy”. The National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB) has found it difficult to translate the flood of reports coming in from Congress into feasible policies because it lacks the tools to streamline the investigation process in a detailed and transparent manner. The NBIB and clearance-requiring agencies must be “results-driven” and not wait for the next policy recommendation from Capitol Hill. The NBIB should publish a mission statement that explains both the process of clearance investigations and how these investigations strengthen integrity within the government. It should also set a certain completion rate for such investigations so that the employees have the incentive to use diligence and efficiency throughout the process.

In order to spur positive reform, officials must view this backlog through the lens of attrition and reciprocity. It has been estimated that the worker attrition for clearance-level jobs is up to 10,000, while thousands of current employees fear the lack of reciprocity from one agency to another. The GOA report outlines this apprehension in detail, noting that the NBIB has not created a policy “to guide agencies in honoring previously granted clearances by other agencies”. This constant back-and-forth has led to a standstill in intra-agency communication, which exacerbates the backlog issue. To resolve the issue of reciprocity, the NBIB must improve the clearance tier system in order to establish a benchmark that all agencies can use. For example, a “top secret” security clearance at the State Department National Security Agency could be used to access topic-related documents at the Department of Defense National without the employee re-applying for a NSC-specific clearance.

Overall, the issue of the current backlog of security clearances is one created by the lack of vision by the NBIB, compounded by the federal government’s lackluster drive for facilitating intra-agency communication. The sudden attention to this backlog is a welcome sight, but the government must focus on ensuring that bright professionals are cleared to work for their country.