Bush administration streamlines security clearance process

Executive order requires agencies to use common standards, reciprocal recognition.

The Bush administration has issued a new executive order that could streamline the onerous and often lengthy background checks performed on federal employees and contractors who need special security clearance to access classified information.

Comment on this article in The Forum.The order, issued on June 30, requires federal agencies to establish "consistent standards" for all individuals who require access to classified national security information or who are applying for a sensitive government position.

"The aligned system shall employ updated and consistent standards and methods, enable innovations with enterprise information technology capabilities and end-to-end automation to the extent practicable, and ensure that relevant information maintained by agencies can be accessed and shared rapidly across the executive branch," the order stated.

"End-to-end automation" refers to a governmentwide system that can manage and monitor cases and maintain relevant documentation throughout the course of the evaluation processes.

The White House is also requiring "reciprocal recognition" of background investigations and adjudications -- meaning that in most cases, if a contractor or federal employee received security clearance from one agency it would be applicable governmentwide.

Many federal agencies use their own security clearance standards and do not necessarily accept background checks performed by other executive branch agencies.

"An agency may not establish additional investigative or adjudicative requirements ... that exceed the requirements for suitability, contractor employee fitness, eligibility for logical or physical access, eligibility to hold a sensitive position, or eligibility for access to classified information," the order stated.

The policy provides limited exceptions for agencies that require a polygraph test, or when additional requirements "are necessary to address significant needs unique to the agency involved or to protect national security."

The order also mandates the creation of a Performance Accountability Council to direct the reform effort. Clay Johnson, deputy director of management at the Office of Management and Budget, will chair the committee.

The council also will include Linda Springer, director of the Office of Personnel Management, who will serve as the group's suitability executive agent. Springer will oversee the development of consistent security clearance policies and procedures.

Meanwhile, Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, will serve as the council's security executive agent. McConnell will, among other functions, "direct the oversight of investigations and determinations of eligibility for access to classified information or eligibility to hold a sensitive position made by any agency."

Johnson also can designate officials from other agencies to serve on the council.

The executive order has been long awaited by the contracting industry, which has complained for more than a decade about the costly and time-consuming security clearance process.

"This is not going to solve all of the problems," said Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, a contractor trade group. "But it's a positive step forward."

The 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act required that by the end of 2006, 80 percent of initial security applications be completed within 120 days. The average processing time to adjudicate a security clearance is 105 days, according to OMB.

Prior to 2004, the average time to conduct the required investigation for a Top Secret clearance was more than one year, and investigations for Confidential clearances averaged five to six months, according to a report issued in February by the Security Clearance Oversight Group.

A more difficult and pressing goal awaits OMB at the end of 2009, when the law requires that 90 percent of security clearances be processed within 60 days and all Top Secret clearance requests be completed within 120 days.

While the executive order will help expedite and untangle the process, other problems remain unaddressed, Soloway said.

Issues persist about the sheer cost of the process -- in 2006 the Defense Security Service, the Pentagon agency that pays for clearance investigations, had to temporarily stop processing requests when it ran out of funds -- and whether the level of data required by the government is too burdensome.

"There are questions about whether we are prescribing the right level of security and the right degree of discipline," Soloway said.