WASHINGTON (CN) – Despite a crushing backlog of 710,000 unprocessed federal security clearances, a plan to break the logjam is still two years from being acted on, a Senate panel was told Wednesday.
Appearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Garry Reid, director of the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, said his agency is poised to take over background check responsibilities from the National Background Investigation Bureau and the Office of Personnel Management, and that Defense Secretary James Mattis set an October 2020 deadline for the transition to begin.
The move comes nearly two months after the Government Accountability Office added U.S. security clearance processes to its “High Risk List.” The categorization indicates delays are so significant, that lapses in the review process could potentially harm national security.
The backlog has ballooned to nearly four times its 2014 size, noted Brenda Farrell, director of defense management at the Government Accountability Office.
“In 2012, 73 percent of applicants didn’t meet timely objectives for initial clearances. Ninety-eight percent did not meet objectives in FY2016,” Farrell told lawmakers.
From August 2014 through February of this year, backlogged applications jumped drastically from 190,000 in limbo to 710,000.
The National Background Investigation Bureau only took over reviewing security clearance processes two years ago when then-President Barack Obama cut the United States Investigation Services out of the process altogether due to the organization’s oversight of applicants Edward Snowden and Aaron Alexis.
Snowden, the former NSA contractor who leaked highly sensitive information about global surveillance programs in 2013, was cleared by USIS without incident. Alexis, a private contractor with a 10-year security clearance, went on a shooting spree in 2013 at the Washington Navy Yard, killing 12.
Felony charges, including an arrest involving a firearm went unnoted in Alexis’ background check before he obtained his secret-level security clearance. There were no periodic reviews into Snowden’s activities while he worked for the agency, either. In part, it is the slow and incomplete review processes that are the culprit for these now infamous oversights, Farrell and other experts said on Wednesday.
The solution is “reciprocity” and implementing a “four-ones” procedure, said David Berteau, president of Professional Services Council, a consulting firm specializing in federal government technology services.
“Four-ones” would streamline the entire process he said.
“You create one background check application, conduct one investigation. There’s one adjudication and then one clearance [issued],” Berteau said, noting the Department of Homeland Security alone has more than dozen ways to determine reciprocity between departments.
“[One office] may say [to an applicant] you’re good enough for those guys [or another office] But you’re not good for me,” he said.
Making it more difficult, he added, is the lack of data sharing between the private sector and the public sector: the two often don’t have equal access to information generated in the background checks.
Creating one set of criteria and applying it across all branches of government would quell the backlog, he said.
Continuous reviews are most critical though, said Jane Chappell, vice president of global intelligence services at Raytheon. Chappell suggested a cloud-like data system where information is available to evaluators any time, from anywhere.
“Instead of waiting from day one to year five and then having a periodic investigation, we need to continuously monitor data to see if there’s any adverse [information] coming up,” she said.
Greater attention to background checks has been underway since assault allegations against former Trump aide Rob Porter came to light last month. Despite accusations of domestic abuse reported to the FBI, Porter was still granted an interim clearance.
The incident with Porter magnified security concerns in the White House and eventually led to a security clearance downgrade for Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner.
Kushner’s access was bumped – along with all other White House aides – on Feb. 27, exactly one week after National Intelligence director Dan Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee that individuals with temporary security clearances should only have limited access to classified information.