February 20, 2013

John Hamre, a former deputy secretary of defense and chairman of the Defense Policy Board, is president and chief executive of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The looming budget crisis will hit the Defense Department very hard. But there is a place where we can cut budgets and improve our security: reforming the process by which security clearances are granted.

Last month I was notified that I needed to renew my security clearances. I have held security clearances continuously since 1986 and have endured at least six detailed background investigations over that time. But my last background investigation was more than five years old, I was informed, and it needed to be updated. I was directed to an Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Web site, where I was instructed to create an electronic record, my SF-86.

An electronic version of my SF-86 has existed for at least five years. Yet the OPM apparently had no record of this document, which was filed with that agency.

Okay, I thought, I need to do this. So I spent four hours one Saturday completing another SF-86. One of the form’s instructions was troubling: “List all foreign travel you have undertaken in the past 7 years.”

I travel extensively for business and routinely meet senior government officials. Each time, I file a trip reportbecause of my clearances. So I refused to enter the information, rather than give it to our government a second time. All of it, after all, is already in a government computer somewhere.

Soon an OPM investigator contacted me about my clearance renewal. She would need two hours with me, my secretary was told. No way, I thought. How wrong.

At the appointed hour a pleasant but mechanical investigator arrived. After presenting her credentials and informing me of my rights, she suggested we proceed.

“Is your name John Julian Hamre?” she asked.

Yes, I replied.

She asked if I lived at my street address.

I paused, a bit surprised, then replied, “Yes.”

She asked if I was born on my birth date.

I paused again. “Ma’am, do you plan to read to me my SF-86 form?” I asked. If I lied in completing the form, I noted, I was unlikely to admit it in the interview. Let’s just go to the end, I suggested. “I will swear it is all true, and if you find a fault, you can accuse me of perjury.”

My common-sense suggestion had no effect. “We prefer to read the questions to you and ask you to respond,” I was told.

In other words, to grant a top-secret clearance in the United States, we ask a potential spy to fill out a form, which is given to an employee, possibly a contract worker, who then asks the candidate to verbally confirm what he has written.

Unbelievable.

I once served on the board of a major company that collected computer records and provided knowledge services (for example, credit reports) and customer verification services to the insurance industry. The company could detect fraud in more than 99 percent of cases by asking a potential claimant five questions along the lines of: “Did you live at 123 Maple Ave., 345 Apple Ave. or 456 Oak Ave.?” “At 123 Maple Ave., did your house have two bathrooms, two and a half, or four?” “Did the house at 345 Apple Ave. have one fireplace, two or none?”

It needed only five such questions. Why, then, does OPM have workers reading applicants the forms that the applicants themselves have filled out, then asking whether this is the truth?

My friends in intelligence say that across all federal agencies, we spend nearly $1 billion on background investigations built on obsolete procedures such as the one I experienced. In an era of countless data sources and intelligence data analysis, why does our government rely on forms designed in the 1950s? This system is patently naive.

Consider that the spies in U.S. jails passed polygraphs — and held clearances granted by a system like the one I describe.

Technology has produced powerful tools. Today, people can check identities using multiple channels of information that cannot be spoofed, even by sophisticated hostile intelligence services. These commercial data sources are available for pennies. If the think tank where I work can buy a complete background investigation on potential employees for less than $100, why is our nation’s security clearance process frozen in decades-old administrative rules and refined to ludicrous dimensions?

I have dedicated 38 years of my life to America’s national security. I know there are spies in our midst. We can improve security and save money simultaneously. But our country needs a system built for the 21st century. The current system is pathetic.