Clearances: Faster, but not better

Lawmakers worry about the quality of security clearances as agencies speed their processing

Speeding online clearance processing

The Office of Personnel Management, one of the agencies primarily responsible for granting security clearances, has automated a step in the process.

Agencies can now submit applications for clearances through OPM’s Electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing Web site.

OPM’s next step is to move the clearance adjudication process to the Web, deploying an application used by the Army and the Transportation Department. Adjudication occurs at the final stage of a clearance investigation when officials review investigative reports and decide whether to grant a clearance to the person under review.

Clay Johnson, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, said greater security measures are needed before the entire clearance process can be performed via the Web.

— Wade-Hahn Chan

Editor's note: This story was updated at 5:30 p.m. March 4, 2008. Please go to Corrections & Clarifications to see what has changed.

Agencies now issue security clearances faster than before, thanks to increased reliance on information technology. However, some lawmakers say outdated policies might be causing a sharp decline in the quality of clearances and producing unfair results.

Many potentially good candidates have had their clearance applications rejected because of outdated policies, said Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.). “I know constituents and others who have been rejected — I’m pretty convinced — unfairly.”

However, some candidates have received clearances who perhaps should not, said Brenda Farrell, director of military and civilian personnel and health care at the Government Accountability Office. People are getting clearances faster, but the process lacks sufficient oversight, Farrell said at a hearing of the House Intelligence Committee in February.

GAO found that the Defense Department granted 47 of 50 people top secret clearances based on incomplete Office of Personnel Management investigative reports, Farrell said.

Agencies have tried to reform the security clearance process to comply with the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. In many cases, they have succeeded in speeding security clearances, according to a report from the Security Clearance Oversight Group released by the Office of Management and Budget in February.

However, some agencies still have large backlogs of clearance applications. The Defense Department, which processes about 55,000 applications a month, has a backlog of 76,000 applications that are more than 45 days old.

Clay Johnson, OMB’s deputy director for management, said most agencies will be able to significantly reduce the number of older backlogged applications by September this year. By December 2009, agencies hope to complete 90 percent of security clearances in an average of 74 days.

However, attaining that goal is probably impossible without research, Johnson said.

“We are not where anyone wants to be,” Johnson said. “It takes too long to retrieve all the records. It takes too long to adjudicate requests. We need to transform this system.”

Meanwhile, the government has taken some steps. OPM moved the initial step of the process online by offering a Web application, Electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing.

However, to handle all aspects of clearance application processing online would require a significant investment in hardware, installation services and training, officials say. And the time is running out to make major changes before the December 2009 statutory deadline for speeding clearances.

Despite reported speed-ups in completing the initial investigations required for security clearances, the time required to complete the application process is still too long, said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.). By accepting clearance applications online, agencies might make statistics for the investigative stage of clearance look better, Davis said. However, the applicant still waiting for a clearance won’t notice any difference, and it doesn’t make the system any more responsive to needs from agencies or industry for cleared personnel, he said.

Kathy Dillaman, OPM’s associate director of investigations, said the agency is limited in how much it can speed the clearance work that depends on organizations outside OPM’s control. “There are additional improvements, but they are going to rely on systems outside of our immediate control,” Dillaman said at the hearing. Waiting for information from other federal, state or local agencies takes additional time, she said.  

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