Senator Calls on Administration to Offer Flexibilities on Security Clearance Adjudications for Coronavirus

Hayati Kayhan/Shutterstock.com

Sen. Warner wants to ensure that coronavirus financial hardships don’t negatively impact intelligence community employees and contractors.

A top Democrat called on the federal government on Wednesday to offer flexibilities on security clearance adjudications for the intelligence community for novel coronavirus-related matters.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote a letter to Office of Personnel Management Director Dale Cabaniss and acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell expressing concerns that intelligence employees and contractors undergoing investigations for security clearances or “public trust determinations” (in order to access sensitive material) could be negatively impacted during the coronavirus outbreak. 

“Efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 may require government and contractor personnel to self-quarantine or tend to family members, which in may cause them miss payments on things like rent, mortgage, credit cards, or other forms of debt,” wrote Warner. “This could impact their credit scores and jeopardize their ability to secure or maintain a clearance or hold a position of trust. The problem is particularly acute for younger workers who lack a long credit history.”

As a result, Warner is asking OPM and the director of national intelligence to issue public guidance to departments and agencies to ensure they don’t penalize employees and contractors for circumstances related to the coronavirus in their periodic reinvestigations, continuous evaluations and/or vetting. He acknowledged that agencies and departments already have some discretion, but said he would like direct and clear direction on this.

When asked why the office didn’t send the letter to the Defense Department (as it took over the security clearance process in the fall), Warner’s office told Government Executive:

The DNI and OPM are the executive agents for security and suitability, respectively, and in change of adjudicative criteria for clearances and determinations of trust for sensitive positions. DoD now manages background investigators for 95 percent of the workforce; those investigations feed into adjudication decisions.

There are 17 agencies in the intelligence community. There are over 4 million employees and contractors with security clearances, according to the last publicly available DNI report on security clearance determinations, and millions more who have “determinations of trust” in order to perform sensitive jobs that don’t require classified access, according to Warner’s office. While those are not security clearances, the process to get them involves many aspects of security clearance investigations. 

The three levels of security clearances are: confidential (reinvestigated every 15 years), secret (reinvestigated every 10 years) and top secret (reinvestigated every five years). Additionally, there is an “unofficial clearance category” that is “often referred to as being ‘above’ top secret clearance,” which includes those with access to the president’s daily briefing, according to nonprofit The Greater Washington Partnership.  

Anthony Marucci, OPM communications director, told Government Executive: “We have received the letter and will respond to Congress as necessary.” An Office of the Director of National Intelligence official also said they are aware of the request and will respond through congressional channels. 

Warner added that the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a nonprofit trade association that has over 160 corporate members in the public, private and academic sectors, issued a statement on Tuesday that supports his recommendation.