Senate Bill Would Force Security Clearance Reforms

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It also would require the director of National Intelligence to rethink the SF-86 form and process.

New legislation introduced in the Senate would mandate reforms to the government’s security clearance investigations process—some of which are already in progress—and require the administration to get out from under a crushing backlog that currently sits around 600,000 investigation requests.

“In light of new and emerging threats, this bill reflects the changes we need to make to this 70-year-old system to adjust to the increasing availability of data, new technologies and a more mobile workforce so that we can maintain the pipeline of trusted professionals that the nation requires,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., in a statement introducing the Modernizing the Trusted Workforce for the 21st Century Act.

The National Background Investigations Bureau under the Office of Personnel Management has been chipping away at the backlog and has made some progress as of late. The bureau was able to reduce the stack of pending investigations from a high of more than 725,000 in April to 600,000 as of the end of October.

The bill does not offer any suggestions for how to make the process more efficient, but rather requires the White House to create a plan to reduce the backlog and work to move NBIB’s work under the Defense Department. It also directs the Director of National Intelligence to reassess the SF-86 form that precedes a background check. The bill would codify the DNI as the senior executive in charge of oversight for the program.

DNI and OPM officials would also be charged with considering ways to reduce the complexity of the security clearance process, including reducing the number of security tiers from five to three; connecting the clearance to the person rather than the agency, so the clearance can travel with that individual; and creating an information sharing schema to alert other agencies and industry to security risks.

Beyond reform mandates, the bill would also set some specific timetables for the majority of investigations:

  • 90 percent of secret clearances should be processed within 30 days.
  • 90 percent of top secret clearances within 90 days.
  • 90 percent of determinations regarding reciprocity made within two weeks.
  • 90 percent of clearance holders do not need reinvestigations on preset schedules.

An executive order is expected to eventually move all investigations work under the Defense Department’s Security Service, which is soliciting a contract using the department’s Other Transaction Authority to look at overhauling the entire background investigations process.

“The secretary [of Defense] is committed to not bringing over a broken process,” Cindy McGovern, DSS chief of public affairs, told Nextgov in July. “He wants to innovate the process, so that’s what we are looking to do.”

“While the security clearance backlog is slowly getting smaller, we need urgent steps to ensure the U.S. government and U.S. companies doing critical national security work can recruit, hire and retain talented individuals to work on classified programs,” Eric Fanning, president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association and former secretary of the Army, said in support of the legislation.

A spokesperson for Warner said there is no companion legislation in the House, however, the main points of the bill are included in the Intelligence Authorization Act currently being negotiated in conference between the two chambers.

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