Agencies close in on goals for faster security clearance processing

Agencies stand a good chance of meeting or even exceeding the next round of goals for speedier security clearance processing set in a 2004 intelligence reform law, according to the Office of Management and Budget.

During the last quarter of fiscal 2008 -- which ended on Sept. 30 -- agencies made 90 percent of initial clearance determinations in an average of 82 days, leaving them just 22 days short of the 60-day target in the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, OMB said in a report released late last week. The law gives agencies until December 2009 to achieve that goal.

The fourth quarter processing rate marks a dramatic improvement from 2005, when a typical clearance determination was made in 265 days. OMB attributed the gains to increased investigative and adjudicative capacity, and efforts to hold agencies accountable for speeding up the process.

Further progress will hinge on continued accountability through a governance structure for clearance processing, changes to investigative procedures and information technology solutions, OMB said. Most reforms planned for all three areas will be implemented by the end of 2010, according to the report. "These plans, in conjunction with improvements made to date, provide the confidence to project that we will meet the December 2009 goal," OMB stated.

In a June 30 executive order, President Bush created a Performance Accountability Council to direct the security clearance reform effort. Two subcommittees have been established -- one focusing on performance and management, and the other overseeing training. The performance subcommittee has started setting standards for quality, timeliness and reciprocity of investigations and adjudications, the report stated. The training group plans to establish a list of core competencies for clearance professionals and create standard training and certification programs in 2009.

In addition, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Office of Personnel Management have signed off on revised investigative standards that move toward automation. For example, the new strategy will allow automated checks of the information contained in security clearance application forms, commercial and government databases, and subject interviews. Applications that come up clean on those checks could be adjudicated electronically, allowing investigators to spend their time on more complicated cases.

The new investigative standards split cases into three tiers (low, moderate or high), according to the level of risk associated with the type of information the employee would need to access, and dictate common investigative requirements for each tier. This will reduce the types of initial investigations from 15 to three and the varieties of reinvestigations from five to two, the report said, helping to standardize the process and encourage reciprocal recognition of clearances governmentwide.

Agencies cannot implement the revised standards until they have the proper technology, OMB noted. The government is slated to develop an information technology strategy for the reform effort by February 2009 that reduces duplication and improves compatibility of systems.