OPM Mulls Changes to Security Clearance Questionnaire

03.14.13 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The Office of Personnel Management has invited the public to comment on proposed changes to Standard Form (SF) 86, the questionnaire that must be filled out by all persons who are seeking a security clearance for access to classified information.

Although critics have argued that the SF-86 is hopelessly out of date and should be abandoned in favor of a more streamlined process, the changes that OPM is currently considering are mostly technicalities, not a wholesale revision.  Proposed changes include a recognition of civil unions as a legal alternative to marriage, a clarification that use of drugs that are illegal under federal law must be reported even if they are legal under state law, and changes in wording and instructions for completion of the Form.

Public comments on the changes were solicited by OPM in a March 12 Federal Register notice.

SF-86 is notoriously burdensome to fill out, requiring individuals to supply detailed personal information about all places they have lived for the past seven years, their employment history and where they went to school, along with the name and contact information of someone who can verify each item, as well as any criminal history record, use of illegal drugs, and so forth.

“The SF 86 takes approximately 150 minutes to complete,” the OPM notice says.  But for many people, this seems to be an underestimate.

“I spent four hours one Saturday completing [an] SF-86,” wrote John Hamre, who was deputy secretary of defense under President Clinton, in a Washington Post op-ed recently. His pointed criticism of the Form and the clearance process may have inspired some of the proposed changes. (“The wrong way to weed out spies,” Washington Post, February 20.)

The OPM notice promises that “once entered, a respondent’s complete and certified investigative data remains secured in the e-QIP system until the next time” the form must be completed (e.g. for clearance renewal).

But in Secretary Hamre’s case this didn’t happen for some reason — his previous Form was not saved. “The OPM apparently had no record of this document, which was filed with that agency,” he wrote, so he had to start over from scratch.

When the SF-86 asked for a list of “all foreign travel you have undertaken in the past 7 years,” Hamre balked.  He said he had repeatedly traveled on official business and always reported any contacts with foreign government officials.  So “I refused to enter the information, rather than give it to our government a second time.”

As if in response to Hamre’s objection, the new OPM notice says the Form’s instructions will be “amended so that the respondent need [not] report contact related to official U.S. Government travel.”

Much like the national security classification system that it supports, the security clearance process is still predicated on cold war-era presumptions that became obsolete decades ago. This fundamental critique has yet to be addressed by OPM.

“Why does our government rely on forms designed in the 1950s?” Hamre complained.  “Our country needs a system built for the 21st century.  The current system is pathetic.”