Senate panel probes security clearance woes
The process to obtain access to classified government information has become so “absurd” that when then-Sen. Dan Coats, who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was named President Trump’s director of national intelligence, he needed to re-apply for a security clearance.
“Because there was that short-term gap, he had to go through a whole new security clearance process,” Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence panel. “That was pretty absurd.”
In January, the Government Accountability Office went so far as to place the security clearance process on its “high risk” list of areas requiring immediate broad-based reform, noting that the backlog for investigating job candidates for security clearances has more than tripled in four years to 710,000.
The problems include an antiquated system established to thwart outside threats, but works poorly against internal threats like National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden; the failure to employ cutting-edge technology to simplify background checks; and, as in Mr. Coats’ case, the reality that a clearance at one government agency often does not transfer to another part of the government.
With 23 different agencies, and subcategories within agencies, the duplication is massive, experts told a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Wednesday.
The Trump White House, struggling with the issue of the security status woes of presidential adviser/son-in-law Jared Kushner and ex-White House aide Rob Porter and a backlog of security checks for other Executive Branch personnel, accuses the federal bureaucracy of exploiting the security clearance process to hurt the administration’s agenda.
“The security clearance process is being weaponized by anti-Trump bureaucrats who are using it as a tool to not only thwart the president’s agenda but to prevent him from installing appointees who will execute it,” Sean Bigley, a federal security clearance lawyer who represents several senior administration officials caught up in the process, said in an interview this week.
In the past five years, the federal government has attempted to overhaul the background check process since it was revealed that the last firm in charge, Virginia-based USIS, had failed to complete some 665,000 investigations.
“Despite recent headlines, the overwhelming majority of those waiting don’t have unusually complex backgrounds or finances to untangle,” he said.
As a result, the waiting time between getting a job and being cleared to work at a government agency, or private business contracting with the government requiring one — often runs at least a year.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, asked David Berteau, president of the Professional Services Council, which represents the government contracting staffing business, about the delays.
“Why’s it take so damn long?” Mr. Burr asked.
Kevin Phillips, president and CEO of government contractor ManTech, said the process, established during the Eisenhower administration, is “very manual” and requires investigators to make personal visits to check up on someone with handwritten notes, not computer tablets. There is also a matter of trust, he added.
“People want to walk through the process and make sure, in this environment, that people are trustworthy,” he said, “and the timeline is taking longer because the assurance is needed.”
Mr. Warner noted that the security industry is a far larger than under President Eisenhower, with workers now far more mobile across careers, industry sectors and location.
“Technology such as Big Data and artificial intelligence can help assess people’s trustworthiness in far more efficient and dynamic ways,” he said. “But we have not taken advantage of these advances. We need a revolution to our system.”
Then-Sen. Dan Coats (center), who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee, needed to re-apply for a security clearance when he was named President Trump’s director of national intelligence.