Despite progress over the past month, the National Background Investigations Bureau still faces a backlog of approximately 700,000 security clearance seekers, and it’s forcing one department to issue riskier interim clearances, according to top officials.
NBIB Director Charles Phalen, speaking Wednesday at the Intelligence and National Security Summit, said the clearance backlog has decreased in recent weeks after it ballooned in the spring. Of the 700,000 Americans awaiting a security clearance to handle varying levels of sensitive government data, 300,000 are being cleared for the first time and 170,000 seek employment in the military services.
The average time to complete background investigations is “roughly four months” for those seeking the equivalent of a secret clearance, and “nine to ten months” for those seeking top secret clearance, he said.
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“These are not numbers we are particularly happy with,” Phalen said. “They’re not good, but holding reasonably steady. For the last four weeks, we’ve actually seen a decrease in the backlog, but it’s nothing to write home about.”
NBIB was created by President Barack Obama in January 2016 following the breach of the Office of Personnel Management systems that compromised data on more than 20 million current and former federal employees. It shifts the responsibility for securing background check information from OPM to the Defense Department. Yet the current backlog, Phalen said, occurred when the government canceled contracts in 2014 with clearance vetting company USIS after it suffered its own data breach.
Fallout from the backlog is affecting the Defense Department.
Dan Payne, director of the Defense Security Service, told the audience the security clearance backlog has forced the department to take a riskier approach by issuing interim security clearances.
Interim clearances, he said, can be issued temporarily on the basis of an FBI background and credit check. They grant an employee access to sensitive or classified data while a more traditional, lengthier background check is completed.
“If we don’t do interim clearances, nothing gets done,” Payne said.
But Payne has revoked interim clearances for a number of personnel after sometimes grievous information comes to light, either through a background check or other means.
“On a weekly basis, I have murderers who have access to classified information, I have rapists, pedophiles and people involved in child porn—I have all these things at the interim clearance level and I’m pulling their clearances on a weekly basis,” Payne said. “That is the risk we are taking. We are giving those people access to classified information with only the minimum amount of investigation. That’s why bringing down the timeline on the [background] investigation process is so vital and important to national security.”
Defense is beginning to implement a continuous evaluation program across its workforce—using a combination of sophisticated software and databases to keep tabs on employees in real time—to modernize old security clearance practices.
Currently, Defense has approximately 500,000 personnel enrolled in continuous evaluation and expects that number to double by the end of 2017, he said.
Using software that runs personnel through dozens private and government databases, Payne said he identified 48 people whose security clearance the department revoked “as a result of things we found during the continuous process.”
“It’s been doing exactly what we had hoped it would do,” Payne said.
Traditionally, when defense or military personnel receive a security clearance, they are not investigated again for five to 10 years. The department is unlikely to find out about incidents unless employees report themselves.
Payne said the numbers back up how continuous evaluation directly addresses that challenge.
Referencing the 48 people whose security clearances he revoked, Payne said those with secret-level clearances had “roughly six years” before their next investigation; at the top secret level, continuous evaluation alerted the department to issues “14 to 15 months” before investigations were due.
Continuous evaluation also will be a key to thwarting rogue insiders, such as Edward Snowden, Payne said.