Security clearance backlog puts contractors, DOD at risk

The growing security clearance backlog is a serious roadblock to effectively increasing defense spending but hardly anyone wants to talk about it.

Calls from Congress and the Trump administration to increase defense spending face a serious roadblock that has received scant attention: the growing security clearance backlog for government and contractor personnel. Here are six problems and what is needed to fix them.

  1. The Backlog

The security investigations backlog has skyrocketed, but the government is downplaying it. According to OMB, between February and September 2016, the backlog grew more than 22 percent from 464,000 to 569,000. In a congressional hearing on Feb. 2, officials said the backlog was “more than half a million investigations.” All signs indicate it is still going up. 

Processing times are also too long, nearly triple the goal of 40 days for secret-level investigations (averaging 105 days) and 80 days for top secret-level investigations (214 days). 

  1. Resource Shortfalls

For years, there have been too few people processing clearances and too little money to meet the demand. This affects agencies across the government, particularly those with the greatest demand. For example, when OPM raised the prepayment rate for a clearance request in 2015, Department of Defense funds to meet its pre-planned demand fell short by more than $60 million. The fiscal 2017 DOD budget request would have fixed that, but continuing resolutions made the funding shortfall worse. Civilian agencies also face funding shortfalls, though there is no readily available reliable information on their size.

  1. Antiquated Processes

Much of the backlog problem comes from using an antiquated, time-consuming background investigations process. Investigators ask basically the same questions they did 40 years ago, often going door-to-door and relying on face-to-face meetings with neighbors and friends. The government still relies too much on paper records and closed systems for collecting and sharing information.

  1. No Reciprocity

Dozens of agencies require their personnel and supporting contractors to obtain and maintain security clearances, yet these agencies fail to accept clearances from one another. At a Professional Services Council event last fall, the Justice Department alone cited at least five different required sets of background information, with DOJ agencies failing to recognize the validity of similar investigations even from within the same agency. This only exacerbates backlog problems.

  1. The OPM Data Breach

About the only area of the security clearance problem that has received plenty of attention has been the 2014 hacking of 22 million Office of Personnel Management data records. The records were so vulnerable to hacking, and government defenses so inadequate, that former Defense Policy Under Secretary Dr. Jim Miller described them as the equivalent of “leaving boxes of money on the front porch.” 

However, while there has been little reporting on the OPM data breach impacts on security clearance backlogs, it is likely that government agencies have slowed their pace of activity in order to reduce their own vulnerability.

  1. Government Silence

The biggest problem of all is that the federal government simply won’t acknowledge the depth and vectors of the problems. Current data on the backlog are hard to find and harder to validate. Public statements by senior officials ignore both the magnitude of the problem and its impact on government workload and workforce. Congress has devoted little attention to the backlog, and hearings have focused more on OPM actions rather than on the backlog and its impact. Comprehensive solutions are hard to find.

Impact on the Government

New government personnel (military and civilian) cannot perform their full duties without the necessary clearances. Supporting contractors cannot fill positions requiring clearances even if they are funded under existing contracts. Essential work goes unperformed, and contractors can even be penalized for contractual non-performance by the very agencies that are holding up the clearances.

Fixing the Problems

The National Background Investigations Bureau became operational last October, and it offers some hope. NBIB aligns OPM with the Defense Information Systems Agency for a new database and more system security. NBIB also promises additional consolidation in federal investigations management and additional investigators.

But NBIB alone won’t bring the backlog down. Fixing the problems will take a serious infusion of additional people and funds, and the longer we wait, the greater the backlog will become. Most importantly, Congress must address DOD’s $60 million funding shortfall (as well as any shortfall in the civilian agencies) when the current CR expires on April 28. Congress should also raise this issue with every nominee in the affected agencies. 

In the longer term, we need to make serious changes in investigations processes, including developing and applying digital tools for conducting background checks, performing ongoing updates instead of periodic reinvestigations, reducing the over-classification of material and the number of positions that require clearances, and focusing adjudication attention based on risk to the government rather than on rote application of rules. 

At PSC, we are advocating for actions to fix these problems, reduce the backlog, and have sufficient cleared personnel to meet government needs. The nation requires no less.