Avoid costly clearance delays

Field investigator cautions that a security clearance is not a resume

Delays in getting security clearances to satisfy critical staffing needs frustrate many agency officials and federal contractors. Although Congress enacted an intelligence reform law last year to help reduce a backlog of security clearance applications, experienced field investigators say the problems remain.

Some say the law's 90-day deadline for completing investigations was never realistic, and agencies have been slow to comply with the law's reciprocity provision, which requires them to accept one another's security clearances. But businesses and agencies can prevent many delays and find skilled technology employees with security clearances, according to several investigative experts who spoke at a September meeting of the Business Forum for HR Professionals in the Washington, D.C., area.

A security clearance can take as long as two years to process, said Earl Gould, a special investigator under contract with the FBI. Gould is president of the Association of Certified Background Investigators.

The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 mandates that by Dec. 17, 2006, agencies must be able to complete 80 percent of background investigations for security clearances within 90 days. Gould said that time frame is unreasonable.

The law allows an additional 30 days for three independent adjudicators to decide whether the field investigators' findings justify granting a security clearance.

Although the new law requires all agencies to accept security clearances completed by an authorized investigative or adjudicative agency, few have rushed to comply, Gould said.

"It's just been recently that the CIA, National Security Agency and FBI have agreed to accept each other's clearances," he said.

Other agencies have not embraced reciprocity. In 2004, background investigations for most agencies became the Office of Personnel Management's responsibility, but OPM has been slow to find ways to eliminate the backlog and delays, Gould said.

He said agencies will eventually solve those problems. In the meantime, however, he and other experts advise agencies and businesses needing employees with clearances to avoid delays they can control.

One way to facilitate clearances is to hire a part-time or full-time security clearance officer, said Roger Campbell, who worked at the CIA for 25 years as an HR manager and director. He is now human capital strategy director at Monster Government Solutions, which sells online HR staffing services.

A security clearance officer would track applications as they are processed. In addition, guidance from a knowledgeable professional could help employees verify that all information submitted on a clearance application is accurate and complete, which speeds the process, Campbell said.

"Any hiccup at all takes your candidate from the front of the line to the back of the line," he said.

Another way to avoid delays is to begin the recruiting and security clearance processes early, Campbell said. "Build bench strength," he said, by initiating the security clearance process or validating existing security clearances before hiring people.

Campbell said a security clearance officer is invaluable to companies and agencies that need to hire hundreds of employees to fill national security and public trust positions. A clearance officer who knows the right questions to ask could make the difference in whether a security clearance investigation moves quickly or slowly.

Such officers, for example, know to ask if an employee was born in a foreign country. To get a security clearance, a person must renounce any foreign citizenship and produce a naturalization certificate from Citizenship and Immigration Services, the former Immigration and Naturalization Service.

If applicants collect all that paperwork in advance, a field investigator could save many hours, Gould said. "Trying to find a naturalization certificate in INS is like trying to find Osama bin Laden," he said. "Those people are really understaffed."

Sometimes the simplest way to maneuver around the processing backlog is to hire an ex-military employee with an active security clearance, said Carl Savino, president of Competitive Edge Services, a company that finds jobs for military veterans. Nearly 250,000 people leave active military duty each year, he said, and many of them have clearances.

Through several steps, agencies and businesses can avoid unnecessary clearance delays. But Gould said agencies cannot control delays rooted in OPM's HR culture. For its expanded role in conducting security clearances, he said, the agency needs to replace its mentality with a national security mind-set. "National security is not a human resources chore."

An HR official, for example, cannot explore someone's marital status during a hiring interview, whereas a security investigator "will explore this area rather deeply in some cases," Gould said. "You would not like the questions we ask," he said, addressing the audience of HR officials.

But for security clearances, background investigators need to ask personal questions, he said. "We have a lot more to lose if we screw up."

4 ways to avoid clearance delays

Background investigators whose field work largely determines who gets security clearances offer tips on how to navigate around security clearance obstacles.

Their suggestions for agencies include:

  • Hiring a part-time or full-time security clearance officer.
  • Checking the completeness and accuracy of information with employees before they submit security clearance applications.
  • Verifying previous employment before submitting a security clearance application.
  • Daily checking on the status of applicants to verify they are still in the queue.

-- Florence Olsen

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