Clearance process accelerates into high gear

Federal security officials insist they are moving ahead rapidly with new policies and procedures that will break the logjam of security clearance applications and improve the timeliness and efficiency of background investigations.

Although the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 mandated a thorough overhaul of the system, which critics have called a relic of the Eisenhower administration, agencies have been slow to respond. The situation gained renewed attention in May when the Defense Security Service halted the security clearance process because it lacked funds.

“We are going to reform the security clearance function,” said Clay Johnson, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget.

Johnson, speaking July 11 to an audience of contractors and vendors at OMB, said the agency has a clear definition of success that it will evaluate each December from 2006 to 2009, the benchmarks established by the intelligence reform act.

Kathy Dillaman, associate director of investigations at OPM's Federal Investigative Services, said that by inheriting the clearance process from the Defense Department in 2005, OPM is now responsible for 90 percent of all government background investigations. That number is expected to reach 1.7 million this year. Each individual investigation may have as many as 20 separate documents, she said.

Dillaman estimated that the current backlog includes 45,000 top-secret applications, 24,000 of which are already past the 120-day deadline for completion. She said it also includes 240,000 applications for secret or confidential clearances.

To fund the clearance requests, she said, OPM does not “get a nickel from Congress.” The program is run entirely on a fee-for-service basis. Charges are based on projected estimates of the number of applications and on the priority of the requests. Some years OPM hits its estimates, and some years it doesn't, Dillaman said.

It is difficult to accurately predict the future workload because of constantly changing needs in government and industry. “Our goal is to get within 5 percent of [annual] projected needs,” she added. “That will allow us to staff efficiently and provide the services cost-efficiently as well.”

Dillaman acknowledged that OPM has been struggling to grow to meet the demand for background checks and clearances. In 1996, she said, OPM had a total staff of 775. Today it has 8,500 employees, and 75 percent of those are on contracts.

OPM’s Electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing system, e-QIP, has also reduced the time it takes to process requests for investigations. In the second quarter of 2006, hard-copy submissions averaged 28 days for processing while e-QIP submissions took only 14 days, Dillaman added.

She said initial requests can be expedited by using OPM’s Security and Suitability Investigations Index, which is linked to DOD’s Joint Personnel Adjudication System. Either system will indicate whether applicants already have an investigative history and what their current clearance status is.

“By the end of this year, the challenge is to get 80 percent of security clearances granted within 120 days," Dillaman said. That includes 90 days for the investigation and 30 days for adjudication.” By 2009, she would like to see OPM reduce that to a total of 60 days.

About the Author

David Hubler is the former print managing editor for GCN and senior editor for Washington Technology. He is freelance writer living in Annandale, Va.

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