Security clearance backlog drops 9 percent

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The federal government's security clearance backlog saw its first significant drop in years, going from an all-time high of 725,000 in June 2018 to 657,000 in September.

A report on the White House's website credited the drop to "thoughtful, risk-based modifications" in an executive correspondence issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in June.

"Since the Executive Correspondence release, the National Background Investigation Bureau has reduced their background investigation inventory by over 9 percent, from 725,000 to 657,000," the report reads, adding that further reductions are expected as policy changes are further implemented.

"The measures represent a collaborative risk management decision to clarify and adjust certain elements of the process used for background investigations," said Dean Boyd, chief communications executive for the National Counterintelligence and Security Center at ODNI in an email to FCW. "There has been an immediate benefit, with the background investigations inventory reduced by approximately 70,000 cases since the guidance was issued. We anticipate an overall inventory reduction of approximately 20 percent by the end of the calendar year."

In April, Bill Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center said that ODNI would be instituting a series of changes to update the background investigation process this year, reducing or eliminating questions around debt and foreign travel that have "been in place since [Aldrich] Ames and [Robert] Hanssen and the way our adversaries acted a long time ago."

An ODNI spokesman confirmed that the June 5 executive correspondence, which is not public, was the end result of the work Evanina described.

The White House and Congress have blessed a series of major changes to the security clearance process this year in the hopes of reducing the overall backlog, which federal employees and contractors alike have ripped for having a significant impact on their ability to work on classified projects.

Chief among those changes is a shift of responsibility for the clearance and background investigation process from OPM to the Department of Defense. The report also outlines a series of other actions the government has taken, such as the procurement of a new background investigations software system.

The time it takes to process different clearances has seen notable decreases this year. According to figures included in the report, the average wait time for processing the fastest 90 percent of security clearance cases dropped considerably in Q3, from 200 days to 169 days for initial secret clearances and from over 400 days to 390 for initial top-secret clearances.

The National Background Investigations Bureau has also significantly boosted its investigator workforce in this year, going from just under 7,000 investigators in 2017 to well over 8,000 in 2018. Charles Phalen, director of NBIB, has repeatedly cited a dearth of investigative capacity over the past four years as one of the main drivers of the rising clearance backlog.

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a senior staff writer at FCW, covering governmentwide IT policy, cybersecurity and a range of other federal technology issues.

Prior to joining FCW, Johnson was a freelance technology journalist. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, GoodCall News, Foreign Policy Journal, Washington Technology, Elevation DC, Connection Newspapers and The Maryland Gazette.

Johnson has a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Hofstra University and a Master's degree in public policy from George Mason University. He can be contacted at, or follow him on Twitter @derekdoestech.

Click here for previous articles by Johnson.

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