There's no good estimate of how many security clearances are stuck in the government's pipeline. But the backlog of investigations and re-investigations is huge and probably growing.
The backlog -- Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) calls it "a national disgrace" -- is getting renewed attention these days as the House and Senate try to write legislation to implement recommendations of the 9/11 Commission and overhaul the intelligence community.
As might be expected, the House and Senate are prescribing different fixes for the problem.
The chief sponsors of the Senate bill, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), have accepted the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, which calls for "a single federal agency" responsible for security clearances, polygraph tests and a database.
The Senate bill would leave it to the president to select the agency, but would leave final decisions on whether to grant or upgrade security clearances to the management of the agency where a person works.
House Republican leaders stop short of consolidating responsibility for security clearances in a single agency. Their bill would create a coordinator -- the deputy national intelligence director for community management and resources -- to oversee the government's security clearance process and enforce uniform procedures. The House bill would consolidate information about cleared personnel and security clearance applicants in a national database under the control of the proposed national security director.
In the House Government Reform Committee, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) pushed for the "single agency" approach, but his amendment lost on a tie vote.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), the committee chairman, stressed that the White House was opposed to selecting a single agency to conduct all security clearance investigations because it would hinder the president's flexibility and did not recognize special circumstances of individual agencies.
Far better, Davis suggested, to let the proposed intelligence czar tackle the backlog by moving resources around at the Defense Department, FBI, Office of Personnel Management and other agencies that handle security clearances.
The size of the backlog, and what it would take to whittle it down, is a big question mark.
Four years ago, the Government Accountability Office estimated that 500,000 re-investigations, which are required every few years for employees who hold top-secret and other clearances, were backlogged. In May, GAO reported that government contractors are now waiting more than a year to get security clearances.
"It's a situation that is not getting better," Derek B. Stewart, one of the GAO experts on the issue, said yesterday.
Bush administration officials have estimated it would take 8,000 investigators to get a handle on the backlog -- almost double the number working on background checks and clearances.
Before the 9/11 Commission made its recommendation, the Pentagon had proposed transferring about 1,800 Defense employees who handle security clearances to the OPM. The deal has moved slowly, in part because the OPM, a small agency that mostly uses contractors to conduct background checks, has been concerned about how it would absorb the Defense employees.
If the transfer takes place next year, the OPM, which provides investigations for 60 percent of the clearances granted by the government, would be in charge of more than 90 percent of the background checks, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Bethany Young Hardy, press secretary at the Partnership for Public Service, will be the guest on "FEDtalk" at 11 a.m. today on federalnewsradio.com.
Charles Williams, director of overseas buildings operations at the State Department, will be the guest on "The Business of Government Hour" at 9 a.m. tomorrow on WJFK radio (106.7 FM).
"President Bush -- Showing Support for Federal Employees in the Guard and Reserves?" will be the topic for discussion on the Imagene B. Stewart call-in program at 8 a.m. Sunday on WOL radio (1450 AM).