National Association of Government Contractors

Former Congressman Ernest Istook
Former Congressman Criticizes Security Backlog

Former Congressman from the state of Oklahoma, Ernest Istook -- now a college professor, and Fellow at The Heritage Foundation -- wrote an opinion article in the Washington Examiner earlier this week, blaming agency inefficiencies under the current administration for the backlog of security clearances.
"Headlines scream about security breaches, but the federal government can't get its act together and hire the people necessary to fix them. This epitomizes the messes that President Trump was elected to fix.
Everything involving our national security is nearly crippled because personnel cannot get approved to work with confidential and secret information. The screening process is currently backlogged by 700,000 applications—basically a year of drudgery even if no new work came in.
Right now, it takes about 450 days to process an application for top-secret approval, despite guidelines setting the maximum processing time at 80 days.
 Curiously, that 700,000 is the same size as the multi-year queue of 700,000 pending deportation cases which the Justice Department is trying to accelerate. National security demands that we also speed up the process of background checks and granting (or denying) security clearances.
Those highly-publicized interim clearances for White House personnel were only a minor symptom of this bottleneck. Other offices are paralyzed because their employees aren't given interim approvals. The Air Force alone is waiting for 79,000 people to be reviewed.
The logjam is not mere job "applicants," but individuals already approved for hiring, provided they pass the background inquiries. Those include a review of financial records, job histories, police records, and personal interviews of friends, family, and neighbors.
Making matters worse is bureaucratic infighting. The National Background Investigations Bureau currently conducts 95 percent of background checks. But the Department of Defense wants to assume responsibility for their own investigations; DoD has convinced Congress to transfer this work in a three-year phase-in, which NBIB opposes. NBIB was only launched in 2016 and has been restructuring and reforming everything from the predecessor Federal Investigative Service. Fears are that starting over with a transfer to DoD would cause extra delays, confusion, and expense by stacking a new transition atop an already-ongoing transition.
Protecting access to classified material is an enormous task, involving between 4- and 5-million people in the military, government civilians, and private contractors. It includes defense, homeland security, and intelligence work, plus dozens of other agencies with special roles.
Clearance levels differ according to whether information is categorized as "confidential" (unauthorized disclosure would "damage" national security); as "secret" (would cause "serious damage"); or as "top secret" (would cause "exceptionally grave damage"), plus special categories for compartmentalized need-to-know information.
A December report from the Government Accountability Office warns that the backlog puts national security at high risk, plus "result[s] in millions of dollars of additional costs, . . . longer periods of time needed to complete national security related contracts, lost opportunity costs if prospective employees decide to work elsewhere rather than wait to get a clearance, and diminishing quality of the work … with personnel who … are not the most experienced and best-qualified."
How did we get in this mess?      About 60 percent of security clearance investigations are worked by federal contractors and the rest by government investigators. But in 2014 the principal private contractor was fired following allegations of sloppy or fraudulent work, plus notorious events like the Edward Snowden security leaks; a dozen murders in secured areas of Washington's Navy Yard (committed by a man who held "secret" clearance); and the theft of personal records of more than 21 million people. The guardian of the records was the Office of Personnel Management, the parent agency for the national security investigators.
In 2014 the backlog was 190,000 cases, less than a third of today's 700,000. Former President Barack Obama decided to rename and restructure what was then the Federal Investigative Service, creating the National Background Investigations Bureau, with logistical support from the Pentagon. But while NBIB organized its work to strengthen and streamline the process, the size of that backlog tripled.
As the entity suffering the worst from delays, the Pentagon last year asked for another change, by letting it do its own background checks; in December that was approved by Congress in its annual defense bill, signed by President Trump. But now some in Congress have second thoughts. Both houses have approved HR 3210 to slow down transferring that work to the Pentagon, in the meantime requiring more review and more reports, including a study of the extra costs, delay, and duplication if the Department of Defense is put back in charge of its own security clearance investigations.
After all, the DoD was doing that work until 2005, but suffered earlier versions of today's problems with backlogs and inefficiencies. That's when OPM was put in charge instead. After 13 years we've now come full circle. Once again, one part of government points fingers at another, claiming that it will do a better job on background and security checks.
While agencies feud over who will do the work, national security suffers and the backlog has climbed to a mountain of 700,000 delayed security checks. This is the type of Washington merry-go-round that President Trump condemns and pledged to fix. Now is the time for him to demonstrate that he can do it."

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