Columnist

A proud parent from Winston-Salem, N.C., tells this story about his son.

The 22-year-old college graduate was offered a civilian job at the Defense Department “and couldn’t be more excited. Parents were more excited than he was — job, paycheck, things that you hope they’re going to find.”

But then the son encountered the prolonged ordeal known as the government’s security clearance process. The involved, lengthy procedure, with 710,000 cases in the backlog, leaves talented, well-qualified people thinking that Uncle Sam isn’t worth the wait.

That hurts the agencies and companies that rely on cleared workers to do the nation’s most sensitive work.

“Here’s a kid that is incredibly excited to work for government …” the father, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), said at a Senate hearing earlier this month, “and after 11 months, you know, he wonders whether he made the right decisions.”

Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), the ranking Democrat on the panel, are trying to determine why Uncle Sam has such trouble getting the system right.

One Washington-area applicant for an intelligence-community job who refused to be identified said he first applied six years ago but was not hired. That’s disappointing enough, but after the “ordeal” of the application, the denial and the appeals process, his “painful” rejection was not final until last year.

“If the goal is to get the best people,” he said in an interview, “and you’re taking that long, the result is … people are going to go somewhere else.”

Chris Graham, the applicant’s attorney and a lawyer with the Federal Practice Group, said he favors time limitations on the processing of security clearance adjudications. “I think that would be the biggest help to people,” Graham said.

To streamline the process, the Obama administration launched the National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB) in 2016. It started in a hole and is still there.

“When I first joined this organization, 17 months ago, the capacity to conduct the work that we were required to do was insufficient to conduct that work, period,” Charles S. Phalen Jr., NBIB’s director, told the committee. He predicted a 15 to 20 percent reduction in the backlog by the end of this year.

Cutting the time it takes to complete investigations and appeals is key. Despite expectations that the NBIB would make things better, both Warner and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats have declared the security clearance system “broken.”


Senate Intelligence Committee ranking Democrat Mark R. Warner (Va.), left, and Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) talk during a meeting in February. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

“The process takes too long, costs too much and is too complicated,” Warner told the Federal Insider. The process “really hasn’t changed very much” since it began in 1947, he said at the hearing, when classified cables relied on typewriters and telex machines.

Many cleared personnel work for government contractors, including Raytheon, a large technology firm. Jane Chappell, Raytheon’s vice president of global intelligence solutions in the area of intelligence, information and services, complained that “delays in the initiation, investigation, and adjudication process for both secret and top-secret clearances were two to three times longer” in September than congressional guidelines set in 2004.

Other gloomy metrics: The percentage of agencies not meeting timeliness objectives for initial secret and top-secret clearances rose from 73 to 98 from fiscal 2012 to 2016, according to Brenda S. Farrell of the Government Accountability Office. “Since 2014, the time it takes to obtain a clearance has more than doubled,” added Kevin M. Phillips, president and CEO of ManTech International, a cybersecurity firm.

Chappell said the numbers fail to capture “the real-world impacts of the backlog. New careers are put on hold, top talent is lost to nondefense industries, and programs that will provide critical warfighter capabilities are delayed. And these impacts come with a real-world price tag, resulting in otherwise unnecessary increases in program costs and inefficient use of taxpayer dollars.”

She recounted “a disappointing story” from another Raytheon vice president. “While he was pumping gas, he started a conversation with the gas station clerk, who turned out to be a recent college graduate who had accepted an offer to join Raytheon pending the outcome of his clearance. The candidate moved across the country to Tucson for his new job, but as his start date at Raytheon was delayed by the clearance process, he was forced to work at the gas station to make ends meet.”

During a phone interview, Chappell mentioned a Raytheon employee who waited 19 months to be cleared and told her about “several other colleagues who are top-notch engineers that left the company because it took so long for them to get their clearance.”

Among the list of problems beleaguering the security clearance process, reciprocity, among and even within agencies, should be easy to fix. Federal employees and contractors can be cleared to work in one office, but if they move to another, they often must be cleared again. That adds to the backlog.

“How can it be that you’re cleared and acceptable for one part of the government at a certain level, and you’re not cleared and acceptable at another part?” asked David J. Berteau, president of the Professional Services Council, which represents government-contracting companies.

The Department of Homeland Security “alone has a more than a dozen separate individual reciprocity determiners who can say, ‘You may be good enough for those guys, but you’re not good enough for me,’ ” added Berteau, a former assistant defense secretary. “And they don’t even have to tell us why, which makes it very hard for us to figure out how to get out of that.”

No one tried to justify a backlog that is greater than the District’s population.

“It’s just not acceptable,” Warner said.

Read more: 

Nepotism aside, Kushner is part of a big club when it comes to security clearance problems

The head of U.S. intelligence suggests Jared Kushner shouldn’t have full access to classified info