Currently, there is a staggering backlog of 700,000 investigative products, including simple record checks, that are plaguing the federal government. The backlog has grown so egregiously that the government has moved Top-Secret security clearance reinvestigations from five to six years to cope with the backlog. And, it now takes 500 days to obtain a Top-Secret Clearance and 300 days to obtain a Secret Clearance, according to the Defense Security Service (DSS), when it should only take a few weeks to a few months. This means the federal government is lacking skilled personnel needed for its critical mission areas like cybersecurity and is costing taxpayers money.
To address the issue, the Senate’s National Defense Authorization Act (S. 1519) contains Section 938. This provision transitions Department of Defense (DOD) clearance processes from the National Background Investigation Bureau (NBIB) to the DOD’s DSS. The proposal would take back the security clearance process for DOD personnel, a process they were previously responsible for conducting. DOD would then have to create its own security investigation standards, suitability, and credentialing. While a noble cause, this action would only further exacerbate the systemic issues that are inherent in the security clearance process. This provision seeks to alleviate the critical security clearance backlog that exists by designating DSS to create its own carve out of the security clearance process, separate from the NBIB. It is this thinking, however, that has gotten us to the quagmire we are in today.
Siloing requirements for individual departments and agencies only create further division of labor and drive greater confusion in the clearance process. This provision will force the government to compete against itself. DSS will compete against NBIB, which is responsible for 95% of the background investigations government-wide, for the most critical resource in the investigations process: investigators.
While some effects of a broken process are evident, others are not as visible. Hiring by the government is severely hampered, as it relies upon the same investigative process to determine if an applicant is suitable for government employment. Private sector partners like government technology providers in the national security community see egregious wait times for their employees’ investigations as well as long wait times for suitability and fitness determinations and delays in moving personnel from one department to another. These effects of the broken process create an environment where staff is poached from one contract to another for top dollar, which costs the taxpayer more hard earned money.
If the provision becomes law, DOD will be creating a duplicative method to investigate security clearance applicants but will do little to fix the backlog and only worsen the problems.
Security clearance reform cannot be a patchwork effort solely undertaken by one department or agency. Indeed, the problems in the system must be addressed in a holistic fashion, government-wide. The security clearance process must be updated to one that is dynamic, ensuring there is continuous evaluation, leveraging private sector partners, utilizing end-to-end digitization, and sharing services throughout the entire process are necessary if the United States government seeks to deliver a more efficient, thorough, and, ultimately, secure process.
Section 938, while extremely detailed and well thought out in its intentions to reform the security clearance process, misses the mark. We look forward to working with our federal government partners to take a whole-of-government approach to fixing the problem and envision the art of the possible to stay ahead of the curve in a dynamic national security environment.