Correction to This Article
This column misstates the average processing time for most top-secret and secret government security clearances. They are being completed in an average of 118 days, not 199 days.

Administration Wants Background Checks Put on Fast Track

By Stephen Barr
Thursday, February 7, 2008

Bush administration officials hope to resolve one of the government's most vexing problems before leaving office -- how to speed up security clearances for federal employees and contract workers.

President Bush, in a memo to agency directors Tuesday, said he wants "aggressive efforts to achieve meaningful and lasting reform." He directed key officials to submit a plan for speeding up and improving background checks and security clearances by the end of April.

Federal job applicants and contract workers have complained for years that their employment prospects or job assignments fall into limbo because background checks take too long, frequently more than a year. With the system seemingly broken, companies that do business with the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies have offered luxury cars and signing bonuses of up to $20,000 for people who have the necessary clearances.

Congress also has pushed to speed up clearances. The 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Act requires that 80 percent of all security clearances be completed in an average of 120 days. Timely approvals help agencies hire experts to improve analysis of national security issues, Congress said.

The president's memo was sought by James R. Clapper Jr., undersecretary of defense for intelligence, and Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence, to underscore the importance of overhauling the process used for background checks and security clearances, officials said.

Clay Johnson III, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, and Linda M. Springer, director of the Office of Personnel Management, also have played key roles in pushing to streamline the clearance process.

With the memo, officials will move quickly to present Bush with options for improving the process, get a decision and draw up a plan for implementation later this year, Johnson said. "It was done with a sense of urgency to get these things identified and set for launch, so when the next administration comes in, it is made better," he said.

New government employees undergo a background check to ensure they are suitable for federal employment and, depending on the nature of their job, an investigation to determine if they can be given secret, top-secret or other security clearance.

"They weren't running in tandem to anyone's satisfaction," Johnson said.

Last April, Springer and Stephen J. Hadley, assistant to the president for national security affairs, developed recommendations for improving the security-clearance process. In June, Pentagon and intelligence officials began their own review of the clearance process, with an eye to enhancing operations in spy agencies.

When officials became aware of each other's initiatives, they decided to join efforts, Springer said.

About 90 percent of the government's background investigations, nearly 2 million each year, are conducted by the OPM. The OPM turns over the investigative findings to agencies, which use the information to grant or deny security clearances.

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