With the multitude of national security threats facing our nation – from Russia and North Korea to extremism and climate change – you might not expect security clearance reform to jump to the top of the priority list. But it is a critical issue that we ignore at our peril.
The recent announcement by the Government Accountability Office that the personnel security clearance process is back on its “high risk” list affirms what the national security community has known for the last several years: the current process is broken.
The U.S. government requires a well-functioning system for granting security clearances to make sure we have a workforce who can be trusted with our nation’s secrets. But the current system, born in the wake of World War II, when classified documents lived on paper and Telex, is simply too time-consuming, too expensive and too complex.
There is no question that the threats to our security are real, and people must be vetted to have access to our nation’s most sensitive facilities, networks and information.
We have seen multiple examples of how failures of the security clearance system put our country at risk: insider threats like Edward Snowden and Harold Martin put petabytes of classified data into the hands of those who would do us harm.
We have also seen multiple security lapses like the Navy Yard and Ft. Hood shootings where more rigorous ongoing screening of our personnel might have averted tragedy.
At the same time, the backlog at the National Background Investigation Bureau has swelled to 700,000 applications, undermining our ability to deploy the right people to solve our greatest security challenges.
This is a reality we cannot accept.
The clearance backlog and continued difficulty transferring a security clearance between federal agencies cost taxpayers millions, as intelligence and national security professionals must twiddle their thumbs for months after they are hired waiting for their clearance to come through. Too often, recently-vetted staff must start the process from scratch if they move to a job with a different agency or on a different contract.
Because many agencies and the companies that support them are located in my home state of Virginia, I’ve seen firsthand how these inefficiencies impact government personnel and contractors alike, undermining our ability to attract quality talent and field a reliable and trusted workforce in a timely manner.
I’ve also heard directly from national security professionals on the front lines about how we can fix our broken clearance system. Some issues can be improved with just a little bit of common sense: in the digital age, do we still need to conduct in-person interviews of an applicant’s neighbor? Are there better ways to anticipate who may become a security risk beyond simply having foreign relatives or living overseas? Can we continuously evaluate people’s trustworthiness rather than conducting a full reinvestigation every five or ten years?
The solutions are out there, but it will take more than Band-Aid fixes.
Congress has attempted to reform the clearance process many times, imposing timelines on different steps in the process and requiring clearances be recognized across agencies. The executive branch, for its part, has created new councils, agencies and policies that should now be codified in law.
But we need revolution, not just evolution, to meet today’s demands. We also need the sustained high-level attention of policymakers and the heads of agencies.
As Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I believe our committee has an important part to play, given our role in ensuring proper protections for our nation’s most sensitive information. The Director of National Intelligence, as the government’s Security Executive Agent, has a special perch to drive change. With our partners on Capitol Hill and across the executive branch, there is a window today to bring personnel vetting into the 21st century.
We face a unique opportunity to radically improve how we recruit and vet personnel to support sensitive government missions. And while the threats and challenges to the national security workforce are palpable, technology can allow us to gather information about individuals applying for access to our nation’s secrets much more readily, while still respecting their privacy.
But to get to the finish line, it will require more than a restating of the problem. We need a focused willingness from all stakeholders to commit the time, the political capital, and yes, the funding necessary to finally modernize our nation’s security clearance process.
I, for one, plan to do my part to get this done.