Gaining clearance

The process of obtaining security clearances is a chore for any integrator — and a particularly arduous one for a small business.

Just ask Kenneth Bartee, president and chief executive officer of McDonald Bradley Inc., a solutions provider that employs 230 people in Herndon, Va. "It's very difficult for small businesses where you don't have a lot of prime contracts," he said. "I believe small businesses are at a decided disadvantage."

To get a foot in the classified door, a small business first needs to obtain a facility security clearance, which covers an organization's key management personnel. A government agency or a contractor that already has a facility security clearance must sponsor a company seeking its own clearance.

Some industry executives give the National Security Agency high grades for helping small businesses. The agency's small-business advocacy program facilitates the sponsorship process, matching small businesses with appropriate NSA program managers, according to Larry Haynes, program manager for IBM's Government and Global Services Security Operations.

Contractors may provide a lift as well. A contractor might establish an intent-to-do-business pact — a basic ordering agreement, for example — with a small business, Haynes said. That contract could become the basis for sponsorship.

With the facility security clearance in place, a small business may look for opportunities to clear individual employees. But a small business' options may be more restricted in this regard. On contracts involving sensitive information, the agency determines the number of billets — representing cleared personnel — required to do the work. The prime contractor controls the billets and may choose to distribute a portion of them among its subcontractors.

"Primes hold the billets of who gets clearances," Bartee said. Prime contractors may hold a few slots open for small businesses, but "you get limited access to clearing additional people."

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