Security Clearance Process Remains “Cumbersome”

12.01.08 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Despite compulsory legislative reforms and multiple executive orders intended to streamline the granting of security clearances for access to classified information, the process remains “cumbersome,” according to a new House Intelligence Committee report.

While backlogs and processing time have been reduced since enactment of the 2004 Intelligence Reform Act, overall “progress over the past five years has been disappointing,” the report said.

Among other things, the executive branch has failed to establish an integrated database of all security clearance authorizations.  As a consequence, “no one knows how many people in the U.S. Government hold security clearances.”  (It is more than 2.5 million and probably around 3 million people in government, military and industry.)

Government agencies have also failed to fulfill a requirement for security clearance “reciprocity,” referring to the acceptance by one agency of a security clearance granted by another agency.  This is in spite of an explicit statutory requirement that “all security clearance background investigations and determinations… shall be accepted by all agencies.”

The House Committee found that “In practice, security clearance adjudications are not fully accepted reciprocally across the U.S. Government, and anecdotal information shows that even among the elements of the Intelligence Community there are impediments and sometimes lengthy delays in granting clearances to employees detailed from one agency to another.”

See “Security Clearance Reform — Upgrading the Gateway to the National Security Community,” House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, House Report 110-916, November 20, 2008.

One U.S. intelligence community employee told Secrecy News that reciprocity had improved in recent years thanks to new databases and other tools that make it possible to rapidly confirm an individual’s clearance status.  But the employee said that full clearance of employees who are detailed from another agency often lags while the employee’s hardcopy adjudicative file is physically transferred to his or her new place of employment.

More fundamentally, the statutory requirement for reciprocity “contains some ambiguity,” the Committee report acknowledged, and could be interpreted in one of at least three different ways. The report said the Committee would seek to clarify the matter in the 111th Congress.

The November 20 Committee report mistakenly said that the new Intelligence Community Directive 704 on security clearance standards “has still not been issued.”  ICD 704 (pdf) went into effect on October 1, 2008.

The report also said that intelligence community personnel “hold approximately 10 percent of the total number of security clearances.”  But this would imply that there are approximately 300,000 cleared intelligence community employees, roughly twice the usual estimate.