A government watchdog group put the process back on its high-risk list after pending actions exceeded 700,000.
Lawmakers on Wednesday grilled officials and stakeholders in the process for investigating job candidates for security clearances over a backlog that has more than tripled in four years.
As of last month, more than 710,000 investigations remain unresolved. That’s an increase over 581,200 cases in April 2017, and a backlog of only 190,700 in August 2014. In January, the Government Accountability Office added the federal government’s security clearance process to its High Risk List of federal programs that require broad transformation or specific reforms.
The Senate Intelligence Committee called Wednesday's hearing on the security clearance process to discuss the challenges associated with the antiquated system, and efforts to improve it on a structural level.
Kevin Phillips, president and CEO of government contractor ManTech, said the current wait for people seeking jobs with agencies and federal contractors is unacceptable.
“The time to get a top secret clearance is over a year, and for a secret clearance, the wait is eight months,” he said. “Top professionals are in high demand across the nation. They should not have to wait over a year to get a job, and they’re increasingly unwilling to deal with the uncertainty associated with this process.”
He said the clearance system is hamstrung by processes that in some cases have not been updated technologically since they were first implemented after World War II.
“A number of agencies have their own processes set up, and they are still very manual,” Phillips said. “They were established during the Eisenhower administration, and investigators still have to go in person and write notes, instead of using a tablet, and they have to go by mail to send a request for an education check. They have to physically visit a person rather than use social media or other access points.”
David Bertau, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, a contractor trade group, said seemingly simple processes, like check-up reinvestigations or requests to switch to a job at a different agency, significantly contribute to the backlog.
“How can you be cleared as acceptable for one part of government, but not another part?” he asked. “The record shows 23 agencies, but there are a lot of subcategories within each agency. The Department of Homeland Security has more than a dozen different reciprocity determiners.”
Auditors said that although there are plans to improve how the government investigates someone ahead of providing them a security clearance, like a process that could replace periodic reinvestigations called continuous evaluation, they often are not implemented.
“The original milestone [for continuous evaluation] was missed in fiscal 2010, but no revised milestone has been set for completion,” said Brenda Farrell, director of defense strategic human capital management at GAO. “[The] potential effects of continuous evaluation are currently unknown, because the future phases of the program and agencies’ resources are unknown.”
“You seem to have confirmed our biggest fear,” said Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. “We’ve become so obsessed with the process that there is very little preoccupation with the outcome.”
Charles Phalen, director of the National Background Investigation Bureau at the Office of Personnel Management, which coordinates most federal security clearance investigations, stressed that many of the cases in the overall backlog figure are not related to first-time clearance seekers.
“In 2017, we completed 2.5 million investigations across all investigative types,” he said. “As of today, there are 710,000 [pending] investigative products, but these include record checks, suitability and credentialing investigations, and national security investigations. The top end number is much greater than the number waiting for their first security clearance to work with or on behalf of the federal government, and 164,000 are simple record checks.”
An additional 209,000 of the pending cases are for periodic reinvestigations, Phalen said.
Defense Department officials said that with the relaunch of the Defense Security Service to handle its own background investigations, as laid out in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, some strain will be taken off of NBIB and there would be a significant expansion of the practice of continuous reevaluation instead of reinvestigations.
“We execute the DoD continuous evaluation program, and from my perspective it has been greatly successful and is the way of the future,” said Daniel Payne, director of DSS. “We’ll have to go down this route if we want to make the necessary changes to make this process better . . . utilizing continuous evaluation and automated processes.”
Garry Reid, director of defense intelligence in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, said the Defense Department will implement the first phase of its plan to investigate security clearance requests for defense personnel as early as October of this year. He said the department anticipates a full roll-out within the next three years, and noted that the issue of agency reciprocity is at the top of officials’ minds.
One notably absent stakeholder from Wednesday’s proceedings was a representative from the Office of Management and Budget. Deputy Director for Management Margaret Weichert is the chairwoman of the President’s Suitability and Security Clearance Performance Accountability Council, an interagency group overseeing the security clearance process.
“Is there one person who has the responsibility for fixing this problem, and who are they?” asked Sen. Angus King, I-Maine.
“I would point to the chair of the Performance Accountability Council,” Farrell said. “That person has the authority to provide direction regarding the process and to carry out those functions, but I believe that person declined to be here.”
“That’s kind of ridiculous, isn’t it?” King said. “The one person in charge of this issue, which is a very important issue, isn’t here because what? Did they have to wash their hair?”
“I can’t speak for OMB, sir,” Farrell said.