Behind clearance reform, a struggle in data collection

Readers weigh in with real-life experience from both sides of the vetting process.

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Our Jan. 29 story, “Security clearance reform: more questions than answers,” drew responses that reiterated the central point made in the piece. Some readers wrote in with their own experience with the clearance process, while others raised the issue of Edward Snowden's cleared access that ultimately led to his leaking a trove of classified materials. The most common sentiment, however, centered on just how difficult it is to find the right information to begin with.

Ray W. wrote: I have a friend who is an investigator for one of the private firms. He was complaining that he gets investigations that are months old, sometimes close to a year, and is expected to complete the background in a week or two. This often requires travel to many states (and out west there is a LOT of distance between Montana and Texas) which cuts into the investigation time. ... The mentioned sharing of data is good for security, but that does not obviate the need to walk around asking references about the person and finding other people that are not references to go find out more and to get away from coached answers (for my first clearance in 1970, I was told that the investigator only asked my references who else I knew, and then went and asked those other people questions).

Amber Corrin responds: The amount of time it takes to conduct a thorough background investigation is one of the many issues crippling the current process, given that roughly 5 million people hold a security clearance of some kind. How do you walk around and get references on every single one of those people even once, let alone on a recurring basis? But then again, when it comes to national security, how do you not?

Of course, Manning, Snowden and Alexis all prove that the process failed at some point in the chain of events that go into obtaining a security clearance. Somewhere along the line, critical information failed to be discovered, whether it was a case of information not being shared or being obscured altogether – or something in between.

"We're talking as if one impediment that does not exist is access to data – but that's not true. Whether you're a contractor or federal agency, there are all kinds of databases that either don't exist and should, or that are unavailable to you," Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said at the Jan. 28 Congressional Smart Contracting Caucus event in Washington.

According to Brenda Farrell, director of defense capabilities and management at the Government Accountability Office, another major problem is poor documentation, including when a background check is incomplete: Often there are no details on why information is missing, she said, such as an inability to make contact with the person being investigated.

"That would help OPM make determinations where there are weaknesses or where they might put more [resources] ... or where it might be acceptable to not have documentation," Farrell said. "We do know more about the adjudication process because it is better documented by some of the agencies. But that investigative piece is still a mystery."

NEXT STORY: Turnover at top DOD, DHS S&T posts

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