Agencies balk at clearance reciprocity

Industry, agencies affected by delays

Federal agencies are still reluctant to honor personnel security clearances granted by other agencies or organizations, six years after the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) put such recipriocity into law, according to the Government Accountability Office.

This lack of reciprocity leads to duplicative background checks and investigations, lengthening the time it takes to grant a clearance and affecting agencies and contractors who also frequently need clearances for employees, said Brenda Farrell, GAO’s director of defense capabilities and management, in GAO testimony prepared for the Subcommittee on Intelligence Community Management of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

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IRTPA generally requires agencies to accept all valid security clearance investigations and determinations, with a few exceptions for national security purposes. However, GAO found it difficult to determine the extent to which agencies grant or deny prior clearance because there is no comprehensive system to track reciprocity.

But GAO did find that agencies can be reluctant to accept the results of other agencies' investigations, she said in the testimony. "Consequently, as we have previously reported, agencies are reluctant to be accountable for investigations and/or adjudications conducted by other agencies or organizations," she said.

GAO, which is Congress’ investigative arm, recommended that the Suitability and Security Clearance Performance Accountability Council -- an interagency group headed by the Office of Management and Budget –- devise metrics to track reciprocity and then report its findings to lawmakers.

Industry members concurred with the report’s findings, but also said more needs to be done to better personnel security clearance, including making the process more automated and strengthening reciprocity. Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president of national security and procurement policy at TechAmeria, said he thinks GAO characterizes the reciprocity situation as "rosier" than what industry is actually experiencing.

Reciprocity matters to contractors because the lack of it means a cleared employee cannot necessarily be assigned to a team working on a classified project without having to undergo a new investigation at the contractor's expense. And such reinvestigations are "horrifically costly," he said.

"Reciprocity is still the weak link in the process," Hodgkins said. "Many other phases in the process are far better, [such as] processing times."

Roger Jordan, government affairs director at the Professional Services Council, agreed that the lack of reciprocity is a concern, but said there are times when agencies might have a legitimate reason to conduct their own background checks.

Industry and government have generally done a good job in collaborating on efforts to speed up clearancs, he said. 

"The private sector has partnered with agencies on the security clearance process to improve the timeliness and accuracy of the investigations," Jordan said. "It’s one case where the partnership has demonstrated value."

In a separate study released in November, GAO credited the Defense Department, which processes the majority of security clearances, for the overall progress made in improving timeliness.

Since 2005, GAO has designated DOD’s clearance program as a "high-risk area." In fiscal 2007, the department took an average of 325 days to complete clearance decision for defense industry personnel. By fiscal 2010, DOD was meeting IRTPA's targets of 60 days for the fastest 90 percent of clearances.

DOD has issued new guidance an implemented some technology tools to help, but because the tools -– the Rapid Assessment of Incomplete Security Evaluations (RAISE) and the Review of Adjudication Documentation Accuracy and Rationales (RADAR) -– have not yet been fully implemented, GAO could not assess their impact.

About the Author

Alyah Khan is a staff writer covering IT policy.


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