By Spring, Government Aims to Halve 600,000 Security Clearance Backlog

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The government is working to reduce its security clearance backlog.

Over the last two months, the government reduced its massive security clearance backlog to 600,000 and expects to cut that load in half by spring, a top intelligence official said.

The government’s antiquated security clearance process—which vets the background of government, military and contractor personnel—has long been criticized as a choke-point for hiring and a reason the government can’t tap top talent.

"This constant problem had literally got to a crisis stage,” Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said Tuesday at a security clearance event hosted by George Mason University’s National Security Institute. “When we're talking about backlogs that are 740,000-plus and we're thinking about young agents potentially joining the CIA waiting two years before they're cleared or folks in the private sector waiting in limbo for huge periods of time simply moving from one contract to another within in DHS for example, we got a problem."

Part of the problem is a process that looks largely like it did decades ago, with government agents going in person to verify college transcripts and criminal histories. It also doesn’t take into account the changing nature of work as employees don’t usually stay at one company for 30 years like in previous generations, he said.

“Clearly, there's a lot of information tools to bring that into the 21st century," Warner said. For example, better information sharing could let agencies or companies flag potentially problematic hires. The Intelligence Authorization Act includes provisions to reform the process, including one that ensures contractors waiting for clearances don’t get pushed down a priority list.

Many people go in and out of government, so portable clearances—those attached to people instead of projects—would help the government access coveted skills whether they’re staff or a contractor, ManTech CEO and President Kevin Phillips said.

By the end of the fiscal year, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence expects to share a framework that sets governmentwide standards for background investigations and adjudications, ODNI Principal Deputy Director Sue Gordon said.

The risk management framework aims to determine who is a trusted person and what information agencies need to figure that out. A later phase of reform will focus on the tools and technology agencies will need for implementation.

"My definition of success is we have the right person at the right place with the confidence that they are worthy of the trust the American people place in them when they give them access to special information,” Gordon said. “And that has to happen at a rate that allows us to meet demands."

Lawmakers and technology and defense industry group pushed for reforms when the Washington Post reported the backlog ballooned to 700,000 in August 2017 and defense contractors were waiting two years for a clearance.

The backlog peaked in April at 725,825, according to the Office of Management and Budget, and was reduced to about 661,000 in September after the National Background Investigations Bureau implemented various surges, including getting a team of Navy reservists conducting military record checks.