When Paul Farmer, the physician and globe-trotting Harvard professor celebrated for his work on public health in Haiti, pulled out of the running this month to lead the U.S. Agency for International Development, critics were quick to blame the vetting process.
"I still think the proper response is to throw the vetters overboard -- if a saint like Farmer can't get through, who can?" Nicholas Kristof wrote.
Farmer had been mowed down by a security clearance process that requires applicants to list every place they've lived and name every foreign national they know -- a Herculean task for a man who's logged literally millions of miles flying around the world. A month before Farmer withdrew, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's disdain for the system boiled over in a meeting with USAID staffers. "The process -- the clearance and vetting process -- is a nightmare," she said last month. "It takes far longer than any of us would want to see. It is frustrating beyond words."
But while the trials and tribulations of top-level appointees are well-documented, security clearance delays are much worse at the lowest rungs of the State Department. Half a dozen current and former interns complained to NationalJournal.com that start dates are routinely pushed back because of the slow pace of clearances. (Most asked to remain anonymous because they feared damaging their career prospects at the State Department down the line.)
One would-be intern, a graduate student at Tufts, came to Washington in May for a summer gig working on development issues. But he never got his security clearance and never started his internship. He's driving home to New York today after spending a frustrating summer spent calling his congressmen for help and wondering what happened.
"With the clearance process, as an applicant, you don't know anything," he said.
Intern woes aren't new. Two years ago, Natalia Buniewicz was set to begin an internship with the Bureau of International Information Programs in mid-May. But two weeks after her planned start date she still hadn't gotten clearance. With graduate school looming in August, she was nearly forced to scrap her internship plans altogether before her clearance came through at the last second.
"It requires constant checking up and babysitting," said Buniewicz, who recently graduated from Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies.
While the State Department doesn't keep statistics on how many of its 1,000 summer interns experience delays, the department certainly accounts for it. Laura Tischler, a State Department spokeswoman, said bureaus accept more interns than they need, expecting that some won't survive the process.
Contributing to the delay for some interns could be the time they've spent living and studying overseas, said Daniel Hirsch, co-founder of Concerned Foreign Service Officers, which lobbies for overhauling the clearance process. The Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which handles clearances, farms out most investigations to contractors, who are more efficient at processing applications than the bureau's agents, he said. But when an applicant has lived or traveled extensively overseas (as Buniewicz and others interviewed have), Diplomatic Security (DS) takes over.
"Most DS agents consider [personnel security background investigations] to be beneath them, and security clearance investigations are a very low priority item for most overseas DS agents, so they probably sit on the back burner for a while," Hirsch said. "There certainly are cases of clearances with an overseas component to them that can take many months. Some summer intern clearances certainly fall into that group."
Congress has tackled the issue of lengthy clearance wait times before: The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 mandated that agencies complete 90 percent of their clearance cases in 60 days. And the State Department, which processes 25,000 clearance cases a year, says it has responded. In the third quarter of this year, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security needed an average of 54 days to issue entry-level clearances, the kind most interns need. That's down from 64 days in 2008.
Looming in the background are charges of even more serious dysfunctions. Concerned Foreign Service Officers, which is made up of current and former State Department employees, alleges that investigators sometimes practice ethnic and religious profiling, robbing Foggy Bottom of applicants with critical language skills. And Hirsch argued that unlike the Office of Personnel Management and the Department of Defense, which conducted the majority of clearance applications, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security doesn't have enough checks against profiling.
"As a result, any personal bias and bigotry held by an individual agent can be freely acted upon, with no danger of being caught or corrected," he said. "And of course, that same agent can delay a clearance virtually indefinitely, or until Washington complains. For time-sensitive cases like interns, that means that the internship can effectively be sabotaged by an agent who might want to do so."