Congress urges speedy security clearances

Industry backs efforts to eliminate backlog on background checks

How to fix the clearance backlog

  • Congress should require agencies to accept security clearances granted by other agencies, instead of redoing the process when workers transfer to a new agency. A 1995 executive order requires agencies to grant reciprocity, but agencies aren't following the rules, government and industry representatives said.

  • Agencies should be allowed to grant clearances to 20 percent more workers than a contract requires. Industry executives said clearances can be granted only to workers who have a job that requires one. If a cleared worker moves to another company, the contractor often can't fill the job right away because it doesn't have a stable of cleared personnel.

  • All agencies should use the same set of core investigative data that would serve as the standard for the lowest-level security clearance. Such standardization would reduce the need for multiple application, investigation and adjudicatory processes, according to industry executives.

Doug Wagoner of Data Systems Analysts Inc. testified that there are not enough cleared personnel to fill demand.

Rachael Golden

Defense Department official Heather Anderson said it could take two years to hire enough government and contractor personnel to get rid of the backlog.

Rachael Golden

Congress this year may force the Defense Department to speed its process for granting security clearances to private contractors and government personnel who need access to classified information on the job.

A massive backlog in security clearance investigations is keeping employers from getting the staff they need, industry and government executives said. According to the General Accounting Office, about 360,000 security clearance applications await approval. About 188,000 of those applications are for contractor personnel.

"When industry employees are hired to work in security programs but can't work on projects while they are waiting to be cleared, the contracts are not being completed, and national security is jeopardized," Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) said at a May 6 House Government Reform Committee hearing.

Davis and other lawmakers promised to mandate a fix to the problem if federal agency officials don't immediately reduce the backlog.

In fiscal 2003, a security clearance took an average 375 days to complete, far more than the Defense Department's performance goal of 75 to 180 days, according to Davis, chairman of the Government Reform Committee.

IT contractors said they support congressional efforts to eliminate the clearance backlog.

"We see that as a very positive development. We thought the committee was going to recommend reviews of existing policy," said Doug Wagoner, who testified at the hearing for the Information Technology Association of America, Arlington, Va.

Wagoner, vice president and general manager of Data Systems Analysts Inc., Fairfax, Va., said since last fall, his company has tried every recruiting tactic, including radio advertising, but has only been able to fill 10 of 50 open contract positions at the Defense Department and intelligence agencies that require security clearances. Wagoner and other industry executives said there simply aren't enough cleared personnel to fill demand.

Officials of the Defense Department and Office of Personnel Management at the hearing said they are hiring more government and industry personnel to conduct security clearance investigations, but could not assure Congress that the backlog would be eliminated quickly.

The Defense Security Service conducts security clearances for defense agencies. OPM conducts background investigations for the Defense Department and civilian agencies.

[IMGCAP(2)]Defense Department official Heather Anderson said it could take two years to hire enough government and contractor personnel to get rid of the backlog. The government needs about 8,000 investigators but has only 5,300. The Defense Security Service now is hiring 200 investigators, said Anderson, acting director of the security office of the deputy undersecretary of defense, counterintelligence and security.

Defense Department and OPM officials also said they are still reviewing policies to see where the clearance process could be improved. But members of Congress demanded that the officials take further action immediately.

"We've got a war on, and you're telling us to be patient, Ms. Anderson. It's not acceptable," said Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) "What's most frustrating is that you've never asked for any more people. Why?"

"The requirement for additional personnel has been a matter of longstanding debate at DOD," Anderson replied.

"Clearly, you need more people," Davis said. "Let's stop studying it. Get back to us and tell us what you need."

Davis and Moran represent congressional districts that are home to many IT contractors and federal employees.

Davis followed the hearing by writing a letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, asking that the Defense Department immediately assign more personnel to help clear the backlog, make sure defense agencies accept clearances granted by other agencies and use the latest IT systems to process clearances.

"If, over time, these problems persist, I am confident that Congress will step in and legislate solutions. I encourage you to make solving the security backlog a top priority for your department," Davis wrote.

David Marin, deputy staff director for the Government Reform Committee, said potential legislative fixes are still being discussed.

"This is an extremely important issue for the chairman, and he fully intends to stay on top of it, including personal calls to DOD and OPM if necessary," Marin said.

While they wait for change, IT contractors said they are doing their best to staff their contracts and lure employees with clearances.

"In some cases, we are able to get [work] started with key people by moving them from existing contracts, and we take advantage of initial staff from subcontractors," said Michael Patrick, director of workforce recruitment and planning for Northrop Grumman Information Technology.

The Herndon, Va., unit of Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Corp. needs to hire at least 600 people who have security clearances, Patrick said. Across the entire corporation, about 1,000 open positions require clearances, he said.

"Most of the time, we are taking people who have clearances out of the military or the government and from other companies," Patrick said. "We are essentially recycling people, typically at increased cost to our customer, because we need to provide a sign-on bonus or something else to convince people to move."

Companies have become so desperate that when they need to fill a position, some would rather hire a person with a clearance than someone who has the right skills but no clearance, said Bob Merkl, president and chief operating officer of SecureIT, a Rockville, Md., staffing firm that places employees with security clearances.

The companies "say they can train the person who has a clearance. That's like saying, 'I want to hire a pilot because he has a clearance, even though he doesn't know how to fly,' " Merkl said.

People with security clearances can command salaries up to 25 percent more than their colleagues without them, he said.

Patrick isn't alone in turning to his competitors to find cleared personnel. Seventy percent of respondents to a Northern Virginia Technology Council survey said the only way they recruit cleared personnel is by luring them away from other contractors or the government, Bobbie Kilberg, president of the trade group, testified at the hearing.

Patrick said he's optimistic that congressional action will get results.

"I'm optimistic, because this war for talent is really heating up," he said. "The work that requires clearances is so important to homeland defense and to the mission of our customers that it will provide incentive to take a fresh look at this."

Staff Writer Gail Repsher Emery can be reached at gemery@postnewsweektech.com.

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