Tackling the Security Clearance Backlog

03.28.18 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The total number of persons holding security clearances for access to classified information dropped to just over 4 million at the end of FY 2016, according to a long-delayed government report that was partially released on Wednesday. But the backlog of clearances awaiting investigation and adjudication has continued to grow.

See FY 2016 Annual Report on Security Clearance Determinations, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, released March 28, 2018.

The newly disclosed 2016 number is only about 4% lower the year before, but it preserves and extends a much steeper decline in the cleared population which had reached 5.1 million only three years earlier. Reductions in the number of security clearances are generally regarded as desirable since they entail reduced numbers of background investigations, as well as reduced costs and vulnerabilities associated with cleared personnel.

Release of the new report on security clearances was delayed because of internal disagreements about how much information to make public. In the end, the advocates of reduced disclosure won out and much of the specific information that had been contained in the previous years’ reports is excluded from the latest report. Thus, a comparison with the FY 2015 report shows that the breakdown of the number of clearances held by contractors versus government employees was withheld from the new report, as was the timeliness of the clearance process in individual intelligence agencies that were formerly identified by name.

But why was that information withheld?

“The National Counterintelligence and Security Center elected to remove the most sensitive information that might be of value to our adversaries in order to ensure we could share the report publicly,” said Joel Melstad, a spokesman for the Director of National Intelligence. “We believe that this unclassified version provides full transparency into the security clearance volume levels for U.S. government employees and contractors, as well as an appropriate level of public insight into the security clearance determination processing metrics for IC agencies/elements without giving an advantage to our adversaries, who would also be the recipients of this information.”

Still, it is not obvious to a non-security professional that release of the total number of contractors holding security clearances would provide any advantage to US adversaries.

Despite the significant drop-off in the number of clearances, backlogs in the process continued to grow due in part to an inadequate number of qualified investigators.

“Processing times for the longest cases increased in most agencies,” the new ODNI report said. “In addition, there were generally more cases pending over four months than in the previous years.”

In fact, by the first quarter of FY 2018, the average time for processing a Top Secret clearance in the fastest 90% of cases had rocketed up to 380 days, according to another new White House report (at p.13). That was an increase of about 100 days from a year earlier.

But the White House report also said that as of December 2017, seventeen new initiatives had been approved “that will immediately begin to reduce the backlog.”

“Examples include guidance for temporary (interim) authorizations and pre-appointment waiver determinations, expanding the use of video teleconference technology and telephonic reference interviews, clarifying some requirements in the Federal Investigative Standards to improve efficiencies, and expediting the deployment of the newly approved SF-85P.” See Security Clearance, Suitability/Fitness, and Credentialing Reform, 1st Quarter, FY 2018, March 2018.

The National Background Investigations Bureau had 710,000 investigative actions awaiting processing as of earlier this month, said NBIB director Charles S. Phalen Jrat a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. It can regularly address 160,000-180,000 with its existing workforce, he said, so “only” about 530,000 or so pending investigations would be considered “backlog.”

Earlier this month, the Senate passed new legislation (passed by the House last year) to require expanded reporting on security clearances.

The “Securely Expediting Clearances Through Reporting Transparency (SECRET) Act” of 2017 (HR 3210) would notably require a report on security clearance investigations of White House personnel in the Executive Office of the President.