Yes, The Security Clearance Backlog is Getting Worse

Vadim Ermak/

The Government Accountability Office also found there's not a plan to reverse it.

The problem of long delays for government security clearances is getting worse rather than better, despite some concerted government efforts, according to a watchdog report out Tuesday.

When it came to granting top secret clearances, only 10 percent of agencies met the objectives in fiscal 2016 compared with 26 percent four years earlier, the accountability office found.

That degradation has contributed to a massive growth in the clearance backlog from 190,000 cases in mid-2014 to more than 709,000 cases in September, the office said.

The report dings the government in particular for not establishing reciprocity agreements so agencies can honor security clearances previously granted by other agencies.

It also criticizes the government for lagging in launching continuous evaluation programs, which will rely on regular scans of public records—such as property deeds and arrest reports—rather than full re-investigations of cleared workers every five or 10 years.

Top intelligence officials launched an initiative to roll out continuous evaluation at numerous agencies in 2016 but, more than a year later, have not drafted specific plans for the rollout or determined what elements that continuous evaluation plan would include, according to an earlier GAO report.

The clearance process, which has long been slow and arduous, was dealt a serious blow by the 2014 canceling of a clearance vetting contract with the company USIS after the contractor suffered a data breach.

That same year, the Office of Personnel Management, which managed clearances for a large portion of the government, acknowledged a separate data breach that affected more than 21 million current and former federal employees and their families.

The 2016 establishment of a new security clearance office, the National Background Investigation Bureau, has helped, but the new office faces operational challenges of its own and hasn’t established a clear timeline for reducing the backlog or hiring the background investigators necessary to complete the task, GAO found.

“Without such a plan and goals, the backlog may persist and executive branch agencies will continue to lack the cleared personnel needed to help execute their respective missions,” the auditor said.

Congress, in response to the backlog, decided to move background investigations for defense personnel back to the Defense Department as part of the annual defense authorization bill. The Pentagon and OPM are responsible for mapping out the phased transition plan.