Skip to content

Illustration by Errata Carmona

Far Distant Clearings

​To all those looking to obtain a U.S. federal security clearance, you may have a bit of waiting to do. There are approximately 704,000 people ahead of you in the queue.  

Executive branch agencies are unable to investigate and process personnel security clearances in a timely manner, says the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which found that, by September 2017, there was a backlog of more than 700,000 cases. Clearance expert Evan Lesser, president of, put the backlog number at around 704,000.

"The backlog is a huge issue. It is a national security concern, without a doubt," Lesser tells Security Management

Others agree with Lesser. In January, the GAO added the governmentwide security clearance process to its "high-risk list" of government programs. Although the agency plans to do a regular update of the risk list in early 2019, in this case it decided to announce a special early addition, given the importance of the clearance process. According to U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, the process is crucial in minimizing the likelihood of classified information disclosures, and also in ensuring that information about individuals with questionable behavior is identified and assessed.

Security clearance reform is not a new subject in Washington. Roughly a decade ago, the GAO put the Personnel Security Clearance Program (then administered by the U.S. Department of Defense) on its risk list, in large part because the time frame to receive a clearance was averaging 128 days. But by 2010, after clearance time was reduced to about 49 days, the GAO removed the high-risk designation.

But processing times have been rising steadily. In 2012, 73 percent of U.S. federal agencies did not meet clearance timeliness objectives. In 2016, that number rose to 98 percent, the GAO found.

Now, for the first quarter of 2018, processing times for Top Secret security clearances were 534 days, and 221 days for Secret and Confidential security clearances. "That's one of the main reasons for the 700,000 backlog," Lesser says. "Companies are throwing their hands up. They can't wait [534] days. It's truly a mess."

The process can also be frustrating for the applicant, especially a first-timer. There is no real feedback loop in the process, so many applicants wait with no idea of how long it will ultimately take. "A lot of them don't want to wait around for the clearance to finish, and they wind up exiting that process," Lesser says. And some applicants "get spooked" that the interminable delays must mean that the government has found out something dark and disturbing about their background.

"It's a big, big problem. It gives the government a black eye, so to speak. It's a bit of a public relations issue," Lesser says.

Besides the backlog and the processing delays, GAO also identified several other problems with the current clearance process: a lack of long-term goals for increasing investigator capacity to address the backlog; a failure to identify milestones for establishing government­wide performance measures to ensure quality background investigations; delays in completing key clearance reform initiatives; and concerns about a new information technology system for the personnel security clearance process.

One of the big reasons for clearance delays is that the investigation and adjudication processes are spread out across the government. Currently, the National Background Investigation Bureau (NBIB), the main investigative arm of the government, provides 95 percent of the investigations; the FBI conducts background investigations for White House staff.

But once investigations are complete, the NBIB turns over the file to the requesting agency, which then makes the decision on the clearance. Although the adjudication guidelines are similar for all agencies, the criteria are applied differently. So, an applicant may apply for an intelligence community clearance with the CIA and be denied, but afterwards apply for a similar position with the Department of Energy, and have the clearance granted.

For at least a few decades, DoD has used interim clearances as a temporary measure, so that new personnel can start working without having to wait until full clearance is granted. But with the recent delays, some employees have been working under interim clearances for a year or more. "That is not good," Lesser says. "That's a bit of a risk."

This potential risk involved in interim clearance situations came into focus for many in February, after former White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter resigned under fire after domestic abuse allegations by two former wives became public. When Porter resigned, he had been working in his position (which gave him access to some classified materials) for a year and had not yet been granted full clearance.

Episodes such as this have spurred some lawmakers on Capitol Hill to push harder for legislation aimed at bolstering the clearance reform process. In mid-March, the U.S. Senate passed the Securely Expediting Clearances Through Reporting Transparency (SECRET) Act, which is aimed at addressing problems in the security clearance process to ensure both classified information protection and reasonable clearance times.

The legislation is an expanded version of a bill that passed the U.S. House last year. If the House now approves the Senate's expanded version, it will then go to President Trump to be signed into law. 

"This [clearance] backlog can hurt our local economy and is a threat to our national security. In addition, recent reports of individuals in the Executive Office of the President holding security clearances when they shouldn't have are very concerning," U.S. Rep. Steve Knight (R-CA), the bill's sponsor, said in a statement. "The SECRET Act addresses both of these concerns by improving accountability and encouraging more responsive processing of clearances."

Meanwhile, other reform efforts at federal agencies will likely continue. In an interview, Lesser singled out a few endeavors that he believes could make a significant difference. Although hiring more background investigators will never solve the problem by itself, it could at least be part of a broader solution, he explains. Moreover, investigators are now allowed to use social media information in their investigations, and this new source could speed up investigations, he adds.

Lesser also argues for deploying a better prioritization system on the backlog of 700,000-plus clearances. For example, clearances for positions with the greatest national security impact should be moved to the front of the line. In addition, having more reciprocity of clearance among agencies, so each branch would not have to do a separate adjudication of each investigation, could also help.

And a reform effort that involves a form of continuous evaluation may also hold promise, Lesser explains. The idea here is to keep loose tabs on clearance holders, so that potentially disturbing activities could be detected in near-real time, rather than conducting entire reinvestigations every time a clearance needs to be renewed.

Finally, many have pushed for IT modernization, and this could also help. Some of the security clearance process is "stuck in the 1950s," with investigators driving to-and-fro for face-to-face interviews, and generating reams of pen-and-ink notes.

"You'd be shocked," Lesser says.