Progress Is Finally Being Made on Security Clearance Backlog

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Improvements to processing times are still needed.

The security clearance backlog has been reduced by 32%, and is now down to just under 500,000 cases, according to National Background Investigations Bureau Director Charles Phalen, speaking before an audience of security professionals at the National Security Institute’s IMPACT seminar.

Over the past year, officials at the Office of Personnel Management, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and across the executive branch have been hard at work agreeing to a framework for Trusted Workforce 2.0, the government’s effort to overhaul the security clearance process from the ground up. The first phase in that process has largely focused on reducing the size of the security clearance backlog. With that progress well underway, officials agree it’s now time to begin the kind of overhauls that will also help improve security clearance processing times.

Processing Times

Security clearance processing figures released in the first quarter of 2019 painted a bleak picture—468 days for Top Secret and 234 days for Secret security clearances for Defense Department and industry applicants—and those were the fastest 90% of cases. Security clearance processing times for Defense and industry applicants are at a slight improvement from the highs seen in the second quarter of 2018, when a Top Secret security clearance took a whopping 543 days to process, and a Secret clearance took an average of 325 days to process. But processing times remain higher than they were in the last quarter of 2018.

Processing times are also still months away from the guidelines already in place, and a far cry from the timetables in security clearance reform legislation introduced into the Senate by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. Warner’s Modernizing the Trusted Workforce for the 21st Century Act calls for specific timetables for investigations: stating that 90% of Secret clearances should be processed within 30 days and 90% of Top Secret clearances should be processed within 90 days. The bill also called for a two-week deadline for 90% of determinations regarding reciprocity.

Congressional members aren’t the only ones frustrated by the lack of improvement in clearance processing times—NBIB and Defense officials emphasize there is much room for improvement in processing times, but that change is on the horizon.

“The numbers are still not where they need to be, but we’ve moved that needle significantly,” says Phalen. “We've improved wait times 50% to 60% in many categories, but have some outliers that skew the averages.”

Trusted Workforce 2.0

In the next year, intelligence leaders will be working to create a new path forward for personnel security, including reframing the ‘whole-person’ concept and working more closely with industry to reduce lines of effort and make information available.

In the wake of leaks by insiders, including Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, the government realized it needed to look beyond the current guidelines to help vet personnel. Today’s 13 adjudicative guidelines, which are focused on things like drug use and credit card debt, may give way to more streamlined (i.e. fewer) criteria, and a greater focus on information discovered through online channels and continuous vetting.

In contrast to the largely ‘one size fits all’ security clearance process (governed by an initial investigation and then subsequent periodic reinvestigations), revamped vetting will focus on mission needs, outlining five specific vetting scenarios: initial vetting (the initial background investigation), continuous vetting (continuous evaluation), upgrading vetting (clearance upgrades), reestablishing trust (when an individual has experienced a break in service) and transfer of trust (reciprocity).

“For the first time ever, the executive and legislative branches are on the same page about this issue,” said National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director William Evanina, during a recent meeting to announce the government’s progress on Trusted Workforce 2.0. “It needs to be a flexible, nimble process.”

Catalyst for Change

The past year has ushered in a sea change in security clearance policy, from transferring background investigations to the Pentagon to overhauling periodic reinvestigations to make way for continuous evaluation. Defense officials are hesitant to credit the backlog with those changes, although they’re hard pressed to disagree that the delays and backlogs have prompted shifts in both policy and process.

Garry Reid, Director of Defense Intelligence, said, “It would be very oversimplified to say that we’re changing vetting because of the backlog.” But he went on to say that the backlog has forced conversations with lawmakers, intelligence officials, and defense officials on how the security clearance process needed reform.

One of the keys to reducing the backlog, improving security clearance processing times, and reducing costs is continuous evaluation.

“The back-breaker of this system is the field work, which is incredibly time consuming,” said Reid. “70% of our money for background investigations goes into field work.”

The goal isn’t to eliminate field work but to reduce the number of cases requiring it and open up time for background investigators to pursue more productive issues. All of that requires the reform efforts of Trusted Workforce 2.0 and a personnel vetting plan that identifies risk and takes steps to address it. When that system is working correctly, defense officials hope they will be in a position to improve processing times and reduce costs.

“We are now up to over 100,000 clearance holders in DoD who came up for [periodic reinvestigations] who didn’t break the threshold for requiring an investigation,” said Reid. “So, boom, their PR is done and it cost us less than $100.”

Lindy Kyzer is the editor of ClearanceJobs.com and a former Defense Department employee.