The long and winding road

More contractors face delays as the demand for security clearances increases; agencies work to control backlogs<@VM>Looking into a life<@VM>The e-clearance initiative<@VM>Getting clearance<@VM>Common misperceptions about the clearance process<@VM>Help wanted

Chances are good that only a close acquaintance or family member, perhaps two, know how you handle your money, what you go to the doctor for, and what landed you in jail for a night when you were 18. Perhaps you prefer not to share personal information with strangers, but you want a job with the U.S. government or a government contractor that requires access to classified information.

Soon you've embarked on a journey designed to determine if there is reason to believe you can be trusted with sensitive information that ?if put into the wrong hands ? could threaten national security. The journey could take a year or more, or a couple of months. It all depends on the workload of the government's investigators and adjudicators, what they find when they delve into your past and present, and what kind of information you'll ultimately need to access on the job.

"It's sort of an unusual process, particularly the first time you are going through it," but many people approach it with needless apprehension, said Larry Den, senior vice president of information technology at Vredenburg in Reston, Va. Vredenburg's 300 employees support agencies such as the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency and Navy. More than 70 percent are cleared to at least the secret level.

"People think the security clearance is a lot more than it is," he said. "It is just making sure there are not things that could force you to compromise yourself and that you handle yourself in a responsible manner. [The investigators] want you to succeed."

Because the demand for cleared people is so great, employers routinely apply for clearances for new employees. The companies' work must continue as they wait for the clearances to come through, however, so employers also try to lure cleared workers away from competitors with the best compensation packages and most interesting work they can offer.

"It can easily take a year to go from zero to a top secret," Den said. "I don't often have that luxury ... it's worth paying a premium to ensure that [cleared] person stays in place."

Despite ongoing efforts to improve the clearance process, applicants are unlikely to see a dramatic drop in the time it takes ? six to 18 months on average ? because caseloads are growing in response to the war in Afghanistan and the domestic war on terrorism, federal agency officials said.

"The proliferation of IT is going to be one driver ... and all of the military actions going on in the Middle East will drive our immediate requirements up. We know that it is going to get busier because the services have told us their needs are increasing," said Tom Thompson, director of the Defense Security Service personnel security investigations program. The Alexandria, Va., Defense Department agency conducts investigations for the military services and military contractors. DSS expects its 1,100 investigative agents and other personnel to handle about 600,000 applications in fiscal 2003, Thompson said.

The Office of Personnel Management, which conducts investigations for some civilian agencies, has new work conducting investigations on air marshal candidates. It will also help the Federal Aviation Administration and Transportation Security Agency get 30,000 airport security screeners in place by Nov. 15, said Richard Ferris, former associate director of OPM's investigations service and now director of its office of human resources and equal employment opportunity. The agency will conduct up to 1.7 million clearance investigations this year, Ferris said.The process begins with a request for clearance by the employer. Then the employee fills out a lengthy form requesting information on everything from immediate family members to school attendance, work history, military service, mental health and drug treatment, and personal references. The employee is fingerprinted and signs a release allowing investigators to access records such as credit reports.

An investigator determines what references to interview and records to check, including law enforcement records from agencies such as the FBI, Immigration and Naturalization Service and local police departments. The investigation increases in scope with each level: confidential, secret, top secret, and top secret with special clearance to "sensitive compartmented" information, such as NATO or signals intelligence information.

The most time-consuming investigation comes before issuing a top-secret clearance to an individual for the first time, Thompson said. It's also the most expensive, at $2,447 to conduct, according to DSS estimates. The investigator is required to check records and references that go back seven to 10 years or more. Even if the applicant supplies records such as college transcripts, the investigator probably has to retrieve those records as well. And, Thompson said, "we have to go out and interview all your references ? anywhere you've worked, neighbors, and we interview you. There is a lot of legwork."

That's why the investigation takes a lot of time ? 75 days for a secret clearance to 120 days for the reinvestigation of a top-secret clearance, according to Thompson, and that's only the beginning of the process. In some cases, a backlog of investigations can push the time to 360 days or more, he said.

After the investigation, the file is transferred to an agency adjudication facility, where one or more professional adjudicators examine the findings to determine if a clearance should be granted or upgraded to a higher level. On any given day, the Defense Department's 200 adjudicators operate with a backlog of several days to several months. Their goal is to adjudicate each clearance in 30 days or less.

Some facilities are meeting or beating the goal, while others "seem to get hard cases," said Pete Nelson, deputy director for personnel security for the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

The adjudicators consider factors such as personal conduct; mental, emotional and financial stability; foreign associations; and misuse of information technology. They must consider mitigating factors such as the nature of a disqualifying behavior, how often it occurred, and when.

For example, an alcoholic who is not in treatment would lose his clearance; but if he is in recovery and continuing treatment, chances are good that he would keep his clearance, Nelson said.

In addition to the Department of Defense and the Office of Personnel Management, several other federal agencies conduct security clearance investigations and adjudications. They include the FBI and the departments of Energy and State. Private contractors also conduct investigations for federal agencies, and some conduct adjudications, although a federal employee always makes the final decision. DynCorp of Reston, Va., for example, employs about 950 subcontractor investigators in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in support of a two-year, $25 million contract with the Defense Security Service, which conducts investigations for Defense Department employees and contractors. The investigators are required to have at least five years of law enforcement experience, said George Regan, program manager for the contract.

DynCorp and several other contractors were brought in to help the Defense Security Service diminish a huge backlog of clearance applications. Inadequate manpower and a new, automated case management system that didn't work properly led to the backlog, which reached 450,000 Jan. 1, 2001, Thompson said. A significant portion of the Defense Department's caseload was also transferred to OPM last year.

Today, the Defense Department's investigations backlog has been winnowed to 178,000, and over the next several months the department will gradually take in the work that had been transferred to OPM, Thompson said.

"We feel great about that," he said.

While employers would like a speedier process, they also understand the constraints of a system that must methodically weed out people who potentially could compromise national security information.

"We understand the importance of carefully screening the people who will have access to this type of information," said Michael Patrick, director of work force recruitment and planning for Herndon, Va., Northrop Grumman Information Technology. "Our approach is to be a good industry partner with the government, and to prescreen people as best we can to make sure we believe they will get through the process."

The company can prescreen clearance applicants to ensure they are U.S. citizens, a clearance requirement. The company also conducts background investigations on everyone it hires, which might indicate employees' ability to obtain clearances, Patrick said.

About 60 percent of the open positions at Northrop Grumman IT require a clearance, and at least 60 percent of its work force holds a security clearance, Patrick said. The company's clients include the Defense Department, CIA and National Security Agency.

Contrary to public perception, most clearance applications are approved.

"It's fairly rare for an application to be declined or revoked ... usually no greater than 5 percent, probably about 2 percent" of applications, Nelson said.

"People are surprised at the small number, but when you think about it, most people are reasonably trustworthy and reliable. Most people aren't criminals or drug abusers. I would be very concerned if the rate was 20 or 30 percent," he said.

Staff writer Gail Repsher Emery can be reached at cumbersome security clearance process should speed up considerably under a new government initiative to move the process online.

The Office of Personnel Management leads the e-clearance effort, part of the enterprise human resources e-government initiative, one of 24 government-wide e-government programs.

"There is great promise here in terms of improving this service to the public and the employees," said Janet Barnes, chief information officer of OPM, at an information technology industry event in late January.

Currently, the clearance form "is a nightmare and it takes forever," Barnes said. "Every time you redo it, you do it again. Wouldn't it be wonderful if it was online, and you could bring up your last version and just modify it, add to it and submit it?"

Although attempts have been made to create an online form in the past, the OPM team is "doing it one time for the federal government and I believe we are going to be successful," she said.

Investigators will also complete their paperwork online. The system is in beta testing, and will go live on or before Oct. 1, said Richard Ferris, director of OPM's office of human resources and equal employment opportunity.

Also included in the e-clearance project is a database that will contain all clearance records governmentwide, enabling faster reciprocity among agencies, and the digitizing of all investigative records, millions of which are on microfilm.

"We can't afford to have senior people coming in to the federal government who are delayed by this process. This database ... would dramatically simplify and speed up the security clearance process," Barnes said.

The database project will be well underway by the start of fiscal 2003. The digitizing project will take five to seven years, Ferris said.The road to a personal security clearance is a six- to 18-month journey. Here's what it takes.

  1. A government contractor or federal agency manager determines an employee needs access to classified information.

  2. The employee fills out the security investigation form, usually Standard Form 86, which asks for a host of personal information and references. The employee is fingerprinted and signs a form allowing the agency's investigators to access his or her personal records.

  3. The form is sent to a personnel investigation center. An investigator, either a federal employee or a private contractor, conducts interviews and checks police, financial and employment records, among others. Typically, the investigator conducts records checks and interviews references dating back seven to 10 years.

  4. The investigation results are sent to an adjudication facility, where a federal employee evaluates the results using established guidelines to determine eligibility for access to classified material. The clearance is granted or denied.

  5. Individuals must undergo a re-evaluation of their status every five years for top-secret clearances and 10 years for secret

The road to a private-facility security clearance is a journey of about four months.

  1. In order to get a personal security clearance, an individual's business operation must first obtain a facility security clearance. The headquarters office must be cleared before any branch offices. The Defense Security Service issues facility clearances for the Department of Defense and 22 other agencies.

  2. A letter of sponsorship must be sent to the Defense Industrial Security Clearance Office in Columbus, Ohio, from a federal agency, or from a cleared prime contractor on behalf of a subcontractor. The letter details the level of classification the facility's employees require access to, and whether the information must be stored at the private facility.

  3. DISCO makes sure the company isn't already cleared or debarred from federal contracting.

  4. A DSS field industrial security representative identifies key company officials who must receive personal security clearances in connection with the facility clearance. The representative analyzes the company's foreign interests and also meets with the facility's security office to ensure the office has a viable security program.

  5. The facility receives a Contract Security Classification Specification from its customer, which provides the security requirements and classification guidance needed for performance of a classified contract.

  6. DSS conducts oversight visits annually for facilities storing classified information, and every 18 months for other cleared facilities.

An applicant should hide information from investigators that could jeopardize his or her case.

"It's best to be open and honest with us and state all the facts and let the investigation takes its course. It's a lot better than trying to hide something," said Tom Thompson, director of the Defense Security Service personnel security investigations program. Applicants can be disqualified for a clearance if their deception is discovered.

Drug or alcohol use or abuse automatically disqualifies an applicant.

"There are 13 adjudicative guidelines ? things you have to consider when deciding if someone should have a clearance. Just because you've had a problem in all or some of those areas doesn't mean you won't get a clearance," Thompson said.

Investigators must consider mitigating factors such as the scope of the offending activity, when it occurred, and the likelihood of the applicant's future involvement in it. "Just because you may have smoked marijuana in college doesn't mean you are not going to get a clearance. If it was light or experimental use and you haven't used it since, those are mitigating factors," Thompson said.

An applicant should hide his or her mental illness or emotional or family troubles, such as grief, depression or marital counseling.

That's not necessary, said Pete Nelson, deputy director for personnel security for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. "We rely on medical professionals. If a doctor says the person is not at risk, and is capable of protecting information, there is a good chance it is going to work out fine," he said. "For the most part, if the person is willing to work to resolve the issue, the government is willing to work with them."

Whenever a clearance takes a long time, it's the investigative agency's fault.

Many things can conspire to overwhelm the clearance process, Thompson said. Both investigators and adjudicators are vulnerable to backlogs as they work to keep up with new clearance applications and periodic reinvestigations.

An agency expecting to conduct 500,000 investigations a year might get a million but without enough manpower. The adjudication facilities could be overburdened as well, he said.

There's something wrong with an employee who is denied a clearance.

If someone is denied a security clearance, it doesn't mean that he or she has done something wrong or has been found untrustworthy, nor should the company hold it against that person, said Larry Den, senior vice president of information technology at Vredenburg in Reston, Va. "It doesn't mean they are bad people," he said. "It just means they don't fit the mold for whatever reason and [the agency doesn't] feel comfortable giving out a clearance. It's ... not a stigma." OPM contractor US Investigations Services Inc. of Annandale, Pa., is "hiring like mad" to keep up with increasing numbers of security investigations, said Richard Ferris (left), director of OPM's office of human resources and equal employment opportunity. Five-year-old USIS, formerly the Office of Federal Investigations, is the first 100-percent employee-owned company formed from the privatization of government operations.

Written and compiled by Gail Repsher Emery from interviews and information from DSS and OPM.

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