The federal government is committing to chipping away at the massive backlog of new hires and job candidates waiting for security clearances. To work in certain government agencies or departments, individuals need security clearances. These clearances allow individuals to work in capacities where they are likely to hear or deal with information that could threaten national security if leaked or disclosed. Government contractors and their employees must often go through the security clearance background check process. The process is allegedly inefficient and has been plagued by colossal backlogs in recent years: according to political news source McClatchy DC, that backlog is currently about 600,000 names strong, and went as high as 740,000 in 2018.
There are numerous problems that have contributed to the backlog. For one thing, the United States has 17 different intelligence agencies that require security clearance. Each agency has its own set of standards, which means background checks for security clearances vary from one agency to the next. As employees move to new jobs or as contractors take on new projects, they must often go through the background check process again—even if they have already been granted clearance by another agency. The McClatchy DC article suggests there is “distrust” between the intelligence agencies, resulting in them not putting weight in one another’s background checks or security clearances.
The other factor is the inefficiency of the background checks themselves. Many security clearance background check tasks are performed by on-the-ground investigators. These individuals often visit local courts or police departments to check criminal records or stop by universities or colleges to verify a candidate’s education records.
Susan M. Gordon, who serves as principal deputy for the Directorate of National Intelligence, says the government has plans to streamline and standardize across all 17 intelligence agencies. Such a maneuver will make it easier for employees and contractors to keep their security clearances when they move from one agency to another. The government will also increase its reliance on electronic background checks and data collection and will look for ways to speed up criminal and educational background checks. One politician suggested incentivizing law enforcement agencies and educational institutions to share information more quickly and without the need for in-person visits.
The immediate goal of these changes is to reduce the amount of work required to vet government employees or contractors for security clearances. Ideally, in the future, it will only take the government about 30 days to process background checks and either approve or deny security clearances. Right now, it takes about 545 days for a security clearance check to process. Faster checks would allow the government to move beyond using “interim security clearances,” which have recently resulted in people wanted for murder or rape getting security clearances, among other issues.