Security-Clearance Problems Back on Congress’ Radar

But there’s no “silver bullet” to address the massive federal background-check backlog.

Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner and Chairman Richard Burr
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Adam Wollner
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Adam Wollner
Feb. 8, 2018, 8 p.m.

Just about everyone on Capitol Hill agrees the federal security-clearance process is broken. But a comprehensive solution to fix it remains elusive.

The issue is back on lawmakers’ radar after the Government Accountability Office added the process to its “High Risk List” as the backlog of individuals waiting for background checks to be completed has ballooned to more than 700,000. The nonpartisan congressional watchdog wasn’t scheduled to update the list, which highlights areas in government in need of reform, until early 2019, but it made an exception for the security-clearance system.

The massive delays in authorizing federal employees, applicants, and contractors to handle classified information has been a problem for years, and the GAO has placed the process on the High Risk List in the past. Lawmakers from both parties see the problem as a national security risk and a waste of government funds. But they’re not on the same page on how to best address it—or whether that responsibility even lies with Congress.

“Everyone wants there to be a silver-bullet explanation or solution that does it nicely or simply, but there isn’t one,” said Bradley Moss, an attorney who specializes in security-clearance law. “There’s no simple answer.”

Senate Intelligence Committee ranking member Mark Warner told National Journal that the issue would be “one of my top priorities this year.” After the GAO’s move, Warner sent a letter to Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney asking for more funding for agencies to complete the application process.

“I’m going to first of all try to work with the [Defense Department] and the intel community to see what kind of process reforms we can get,” Warner said. “This is both a waste of taxpayer money—having people hired and not be able to do their jobs—and it’s also a security concern when we’ve got so many critical roles going unfilled.”

The issue has also drawn attention from Warner’s counterpart, Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr. In a brief interview, Burr noted that the panel has held hearings on the matter and said a bill to address it is “still in the works,” although he did not offer specifics.

“It’s a screwed-up mess,” Burr said. “You would hope that they could do it on their own, but I think it will require legislation.”

In the past, efforts to reform the security-clearance process on the Hill have come out of the oversight committees. Most recently, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved legislation last fall that would require the National Background Investigations Bureau, a subagency within the Office of Personnel Management that handles security-clearance applications, to regularly submit reports on the backlog, as well as for the White House to detail its own process. The bill has yet to make it to the Senate floor.

But even one of the measure’s sponsors, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, said the burden to solve the problem should fall more on federal agencies than on Congress.

“I think that the challenge with the security stuff is that, I think they have the tools to do it; they just need to do a better job,” Tester said. “I don’t know why this is such a train wreck.”

The government has had trouble keeping up with security-clearance applications ever since 9/11, when the pool of federal contractors began to greatly expand. The problem exploded in 2014 when OPM declined to renew its contract with United States Investigative Services, which was handling the majority of the government’s background checks. Two years later, OPM launched the NBIB to take over that role. But the backlog grew by another 150,000 cases from the end of 2016 to September 2017.

The most significant step lawmakers have taken in response since then was to allow the Defense Department to take over the security-clearance process for its own employees in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act. But the GAO cited concerns over how the Pentagon will implement a new system to handle these applications as one of the reasons why it was adding the overall process back to its High Risk List.

“It’s never going to be a perfect system, but we have to try to make it more efficient,” Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed said.

Even outside of the DoD and NBIB, there are some agencies, like the CIA, that manage security clearances internally. Moss said that in an ideal world, there would be one overarching vetting agency to handle all the applications. As long as the process remains decentralized, he anticipates the problems will continue.

“You would have to create a standardized process with uniform standards everyone can adhere to so you can streamline this,” Moss added.

Rep. Mark Meadows, a Republican on the House Oversight Committee who opposed authorizing the Pentagon to assume control of its clearance process, said he doesn’t think the issue will become a priority in Congress anytime soon.

“There is a legislative initiative that could be done,” Meadows said, “but I don’t think there’s the political will to do that.”

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