How Security Clearance Reform Can Address Employment Challenges, Reduce Costs, and Improve National Security
This article was written by three Participants in PSA’s Congressional Partnership Program. All CPP articles are produced by bipartisan groups of Democrat and Republican Hill Staff who were challenged to develop opinion pieces that reach consensus on critical national security and foreign affairs issues.
A Security Broach:
How Security Clearance Reform Can Address Employment Challenges, Reduce Costs, and Improve National Security
In 1953, Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize, the Crucible debuted on Broadway, and Queen Elizabeth was crowned. Stalin died; a cease-fire agreement was reached on the Korean peninsula; the Rosenbergs were executed; Che Gueverra was touring Latin America, and the first color television made its debut.
The Cold War was a grave reality for all Americans; McCarthyism was at its peak, and the question of how to protect American national security interests and secrets was a serious test. It was in this environment that the newly inaugurated President Eisenhower issued an historic and often overlooked Executive Order to establish security standards for federal employees and contractors.
Much has changed since Executive Order 10450[i] was issued nearly 60 years ago, but the challenge of establishing clear standards for security clearance procedures remains a significant obstacle. Recommendations that originated with the 9/11 Commission did result in the enactment of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTPA), which among other things required that all security clearance investigations and determinations be accepted by all federal agencies to help reduce the caseload of re-clearing already cleared personnel. Despite that legislation, reform has been listed on the Government Accountability Office’s high-risk list[ii] for a number of years. Last year, enough progress was made to remove this issue from the list[iii], but it remains an unsolved query, and the momentum must continue.
Despite minimal progress in reforming the security clearance process, a tight budget environment, looming sequestration realities, evolving and emerging security threats, and partisan gridlock in Congress, reform of the security clearance system presents a rare opportunity to have bipartisanship on a policy that both increases our national security, reduces costs, and addresses employment challenges.
During the 111th Congress, Representative Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) were bipartisan cosponsors of the Security Clearance Oversight and Accountability Act. The legislation would have improved reporting to Congress on the security clearance process and required an audit on whether a security clearance is required for a particular position in the federal government. The legislation did not progress during the 111th Congress and was not reintroduced in the 112th Congress. However, circumstances have now created a situation where a bipartisan coalition in Congress could advance not only better reporting, but true process change.
The American security clearance system is designed to protect our nation’s secrets by ensuring those who have access to them are loyal to the United States, trustworthy, have strength of character, and sound judgment. A major challenge is for returning and retiring military personnel to become gainfully employed in different agencies and in the private sector. The varying standards and lengthy process of accepting and transferring security clearances continue to be a costly challenge for employers.
Consider this actual case. A veteran of the war in Afghanistan who had the highest Department of Defense security clearances in the Army Special Forces came to Washington to begin a job in the private sector with a defense contractor. Despite his existing clearance, it took him more than three months to receive another security clearance from the Department of Homeland Security to begin the duties related to his new job. This veteran was fortunate that his company had the patience to wait. In another case, a veteran needing to wait a lengthy time for such clearance might well lose out on a job to an individual already holding the credentials.
The complex system of background investigations, personnel interviews, and various other investigative methods with re-clearance required periodically must be streamlined and simplified. Currently, 4.8 million Americans in the public and private sector have various levels of security clearance. In the emergence of cyber-terrorism and classified material leaks, this collective process must return to the ultimate goal of reducing the number of cleared public and private employees, while ensuring that there is a seamless movement of cleared personnel to serve our national security needs.
For decades, this issue has challenged both Republican and Democratic administrations. OPM, which conducts security clearance investigations, has traditionally led the effort in coordination with the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI).
The effectiveness of the system has been generally measured in its ability to protect the nation’s classified information and reduce the length of the clearance process. Though intermittent progress has been made, including the reforms contained in IRPTA, much remains to be done.
In February, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report entitled “Office of Personnel Management Needs to Improve Transparency of Its Pricing and Seek Cost Savings[iv].” GAO found that since FY2005, the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) reported cost of conducting background investigations has increased 79 percent from $602 million to $1.1 billion. The cost of each individual investigation has increased gradually along with the number of investigations.
During this same period, GAO reported that the total number individual investigations only increased 5.56% from 1,157,097 investigations to 1,221,436 but that the number of add-on investigation products had almost tripled during that time period from 386,352 to 1,083,173. At a point when every penny and second counts, reform and standardization is a common-sense improvement. In July 2012, GAO further recommended that, “DNI clearly define the policy for agencies to follow when determining if federal civilian positions require security clearance, and that DNI should partner with OPM to issue, review, and revise guidance.”[v]
According to GAO, add-on investigations are “items that would not by themselves support a suitability or security clearance determination, such as national credit checks or Federal Bureau of Investigation name checks.” OPM’s explanation for the increase in cost was attributed to three areas: 1) investigation fieldwork and support contracts; 2) personnel compensation and benefits; and 3) information technology investments. In conclusion to their report, GAO recommended that OPM provide more transparent cost information to agencies requesting a background investigation, and also identify and address areas that could lead to cost savings.
The inefficiency in the background investigation portion of the clearance system is just one area where cost savings could occur. According to a survey released by TechAmerica[vi], 96 percent of companies questioned experienced trouble transferring cleared personnel between agency contracts, and most notably that the Department of Homeland Security was the most difficult.
Furthermore, the TechAmerica survey showed that 37 percent of companies indicated that the average amount of time it took an already cleared employee to get on a new contract at another agency was 30-90 days. That amount of delay for someone that is already cleared represents unproductive man hours wasted that drive up the cost of companies competing for projects from the government, and thus drive up the price the government must pay to those companies. In the same survey, a staggering 78 percent of companies responded that if clearances were reciprocally accepted between agencies and departments that it would affect their operations by: lowering personnel costs, increasing their ability to respond to mission needs, and increase their ability to bring in the “best and the brightest.”
Our conclusion is that rapid progress is most likely to be achieved by encouraging and accelerating executive branch reforms rather than passing overarching new legislation. Our proposal for a bipartisan initiative from Congress is a letter of joint recommendation to the Administration from the respective chairmen and ranking members on committees of jurisdiction. Such a letter would be a clear statement of congressional intent and expectation, but give the Administration flexibility to tailor reforms to meet particular circumstances. In the House, the committees would include: Appropriations, Budget, Homeland Security, Intelligence, Judiciary, Oversight and Government Reform, and Veterans Affairs. In the Senate, they would include: Appropriations, Armed Services Budget, Homeland Security and Government Affairs, Judiciary, Select Committee on Intelligence, and Veterans Affairs. This would be achieved through a process of consultation with the committees, with the possible formation of an informal staff working group.
We propose the following principles as an initial guide for discussion.
Each agency must invest in an internal infrastructure to manage access to cleared material. The process should be built upon cost savings foundation, and a need-to-know framework. The private sector, Government Accountability Office, Congress, and federal agency stakeholders have identified the need. Strong leadership and commitment is required to resolve the issue. The final product should address core questions:
- Are the existing security clearance levels best tailored to the needs of existing and emerging security threats; should the existing levels be the starting framework;
- Does it enhance or decrease our national security interests to have fewer individuals in the public and private sector with access to all aspects of secure information or more security personnel with knowledge of only parts of the pie;
- What are the major tenets of the highest standards of a thorough background check;
- What are the unique needs of each agency that must be included in a universal standard process;
- Should there be mutual recognition of clearance between agencies, and should they differ from the private sector;
- Is it possible to improve internal mechanisms of data security in order to increase the number of public and private sector employees with access to noncritical and critical data, while keeping the access to special-sensitive information to limited, traceable few;
- How often should clearance reviews occur; and,
- What is the benefit of a nimble public and private sector workforce able to service a variety of agency needs?
This process is challenging, but is by no means insurmountable. The benefit of finally resolving this interagency process is almost incalculable. The administrative challenges and matrix should be framed by OPM, and the outcome and plan details should be built upon the highest possible standards which incorporate the key needs of frontline security agencies led by DNI.
The key is to use the highest common denominator while incorporating and addressing the various concerns of those agencies where the greatest structural challenges exist. The process should be led by those who know it best – OPM, DNI, and DoD, but the perspective and insight of the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other relevant agencies must be respected and included throughout the process.
With sequestration looming, emerging domestic and international security threats, and job creation and retention a national priority, the time is now to keep the momentum going and establish clear, universal security clearance standards at every level of government.
[ii] This is further explained in GAO’s responses to the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee provided by Ms. Brenda S. Farrell, Director of Defense Capabilities and Management, July 14, 2008, available online at http://www.gao.gov/assets/100/95588.pdf
[iii] Testimony of Gene L. Dodaro, Comptroller General of the United States, before the Subcommittee on Oversight Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia, Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, U.S. Senate. Personnel Security Clearances: Continuing Leadership and Attention Can Enhance Momentum Gained from Reform Effort, June 12, 2012, available at http://www.gao.gov/assets/600/591784.pdf
[v] GAO Report to the Ranking Member, Committee on Homeland Security, U.S. House of Representatives. Security Clearances: Agencies Need Clearly Defined Policy for Determining Civilian Position Requirements, July 2012.
[vi] “Security Clearance Reciprocity Costing Taxpayers Millions, TechAmerica Survey Reveals” TechAmerica, August 10, 2012, available online at http://www.techamerica.org/security-clearance-reciprocity-costing-taxpayers-millions-techamerica-survey-reveals