Bill on the Hill:
What Congress Is Doing on Security Clearances

By David J. Berteau
PSC President and CEO

The 700,000 background investigation cases in process and the unacceptably long wait times for a security clearance are urgent matters for PSC member companies, undermining the national security missions they support. The challenge for government and industry is to make the security clearance process produce better, faster, and more secure results.

The Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) January decision to add the personnel security clearance process to its High Risk List reaffirmed what the contractor community and national security experts across the government already knew: the process has serious problems.

Now, Congress has taken notice and is moving targeted reforms that were proposed or supported by PSC. While no one action will immediately reduce the backlog while maintaining the integrity of the process, these provisions represent a new way of thinking on the Hill to support positive steps to address the security clearance process. 

If enacted, the Senate-passed National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) (S.2987) and Committee-approved Intelligence Authorization Act (S.3153) will do the following:   

Expedite security clearances for mission-critical positions 

Currently, investigations are largely processed in the order they are received, not necessarily prioritized to ensure that the government’s critical missions and needs are met. The NDAA requires the establishment of a process where mission critical positions can be identified, prioritized, and filled in a timely manner—in which a secret-level clearance would be issued in 15 days, and a top secret-level clearance issued in 45 days. This program would ensure the contractor community can effective and efficient recruitment of top talent for the most critical government missions.  

Establish an information sharing program for positions of trust

Many company employees work on federal facilities and on federal networks. As a result, companies do not have access to the same information on their own employees that the government has. Recognizing that better information sharing between the public and private sectors is necessary to improve our collective ability to deter and detect insider threats, the Senate NDAA would establish a program to share information regarding individuals applying for and serving in positions of trust. 

Begin the process of implementing a “clearance in person” 

During my testimony in front of House and Senate Committees earlier this year, Members of Congress seemed surprised to learn that cleared personnel could not move from supporting one agency to another (in some cases, not even from one contract to another within the same agency) without having their clearance re-adjudicated. Providing a path for already-cleared individuals to move more easily among contracts will dramatically increase industry’s ability to more efficiently and effectively support the government and allow the government to re‐direct investigative resources toward higher risk and higher mission needs. The NDAA provision requires the Security Executive Agent to report to Congress on the requirements, feasibility, and advisability of implementing a clearance-in-person concept.  PSC believes this is a step in the right direction that can eventually lead to the government providing a clearance based on the individual’s trustworthiness, not based on the contractor’s status. The IAA similarly requires better tracking of clearances inside the Intelligence Community and calls for regular reports to Congress on the number of clearances that take more than two weeks for reciprocal recognition, with the reasons for the delay.  PSC believes that such reporting will encourage improvements, because agencies are not eager to put negative progress on the record.

Hold the Performance Accountability Council responsible for implementing changes

Fractured authorities and policies have thus far hindered efforts to reform the process, as decision making authority is scattered among agencies and coordinated through the interagency Performance Accountability Council (PAC). The IAA will require the PAC to develop an implementation plan to reduce the backlog to 200,000 by the end of 2019 and tasks the PAC with leading implementation of goals on timeliness, portability and reciprocity, better use of technology, and continuous evaluation. This provision will help intelligence community agencies be clear about the reforms they must undertake and the metrics they must meet to comply with the plan.

Modernize the Security Clearance Processes

Much of the backlog problem comes from using an antiquated, time-consuming background investigations process. Investigators ask basically the same questions they did 40 years ago, often going door-to-door and relying on face-to-face meetings with neighbors and friends. The government still relies too much on paper records and closed systems for collecting and sharing information. The IAA will require the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to reexamine and simplify the SF-86, expand innovative techniques and remote technologies for investigative interviews, employ continuous evaluation, and develop policies on interim clearances.

Moving Forward

When announcing the GAO decision, U.S. Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro said: "Our objective for the High Risk List is to bring attention to policymakers of the need for action sooner, rather than later.” PSC echoes GAO’s attention to fixing the processes that have led to the unacceptable backlog and wait times, and we are pleased that Congress is moving forward. We will continue to work with the House and Senate to see these provisions signed into law, and more importantly to follow them into implementation.