Security clearance requests explode and government must keep pace
Costly security breaches, including the SolarWinds attack and the Colonial Pipeline ransomware program, pose a growing threat to national security. The federal government‘s frontline defense is a combination of public sector officials and private sector entrepreneurs who together protect both online and physical assets of our country.
The sensitive nature of our nation’s security requires that most of this workforce undergo a robust security clearance process to ensure that they are able and willing to protect the nation and its information and national security assets.
The United States, however, is at a critical inflection point. The number of people with security clearances has fallen 17% since 2013, sparking fierce competition between government and private sector partners for licensed talent. Additionally, the ubiquitous sharing on social media, insane coverage of national and local drug laws, and the structural racism built into the security clearance process can make it difficult, if not impossible, to recruit and hire the police quickly. next generation of our national security personnel.
Government security clearance standards must evolve to reflect certain cultural realities. With millions of data points floating in the online ether on every individual, the federal government must reconsider how it conducts a fair and comprehensive assessment of security clearance applicants. And it must adapt in order to prepare us to meet new security challenges that are increasing in volume. Failure to do so leaves a gaping hole in the security of our nation. The stakes are high.
The need for authorized security personnel is growing. According to the Greater Washington Partnership, about 9% of all job postings from Baltimore to Richmond require a security clearance.
Currently, a leading security clearance jobs website has posted more than 25,000 open jobs in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, DC, each requiring a security clearance. Most of these positions are system engineers, software developers, program analysts, and network engineers.
Globally, data from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) shows that in 2019, an estimated 2.9 million people – government employees and private sector contractors – held a U.S. federal security clearance. Of these people, 1.7 million hold confidential or secret authorizations and just under 1.3 million hold top secret authorizations. According to the ODNI, however, nearly 1.3 million more people are deemed eligible for security clearances because of their position, but they do not have clearances or access to sensitive information.
At a recent roundtable hosted by my government operations subcommittee, 13 participants from both the public and private sectors highlighted how difficult it can be to quickly fill these critical positions. Additionally, these companies have found it difficult to move their authorized employees from one contract to another, as some agencies often languish when deciding whether or not to accept an authorization approved by another agency – a process called reciprocity.
For example, officials at Booz Allen Hamilton have said that they are waiting for 500-person permissions every year at some point. The company is also seeking reciprocity for 4,400 authorizations per year between agencies. The CACI said it has more than 15,000 people who are authorized or awaiting authorization within its staff and more than 2,500 vacant positions posted that require people who have authorization. Northrop Grumman has 69,000 employees with security clearances, of which 4,300 are awaiting clearance before they can begin work. NT Concepts, by comparison, a small company with 139 employees, has 99 authorized people on staff and nine posted positions for those requiring authorization. Another small company, iWorks, has 90 employees with 82 authorized people, another eight people awaiting authorization, and 14 open jobs that require authorization.
These job postings, blocked background checks and delayed reciprocity requests mean lost revenue for businesses. Most importantly, they mean that the federal government cannot effectively carry out national security missions.
In 2018, ManTech, a provider of consulting and digital solutions to the government, said about 10,000 contract positions critical to the intelligence community alone were unfilled, representing $ 1.8 billion. service contracts lost for critical missions. It was on an annual intelligence budget of $ 71 billion.
According to the National Security Alliance, a trade association of contracted security companies, in 2019, delays in processing security clearances – caused primarily by the reluctance of some agencies to engage in reciprocity – can amount to as much as $ 2 billion lost in productivity in the intelligence community and up to $ 8 billion for the federal government as a whole.
Despite the lack of availability of authorized persons, the background investigation and adjudication processes have improved in efficiency over time. In fiscal 2018, for example, the federal government approved only 668,546 security clearances. In fiscal 2019, however, the federal government approved 964,138 authorizations, an increase of 44.2% in a single year. And the increase was in both top secret and top secret investigations.
Yet there is still work to be done. As the speed of the customs clearance process improves, demands for customs cleared labor are exploding. Private sector companies have thousands of jobs to fill and not enough people to fill them.
Since mid-2018, the Government Accountability Office has placed security clearance investigations on its “high risk” list of government programs in urgent need of improvement and reform. Security clearances landed on this list for a myriad of reasons, including concerns about how quickly the investigation was completed.
Congress can play a vital role in improving these processes and ensuring that the executive branch recruits diverse talent as a pipeline into the national security community. For example, the SECRET law, which I wrote with former Rep. Steve Knight, as well as my Amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2020 ameliorate authorization adjudication backlogs by following investigative processes and antecedent adjudication, allowing agencies and Congress to identify where problems persist and focus on solutions.
Additional congressional oversight has been effective in spurring improvements that have reduced the backlog of background investigations. We must work across government enterprise – and all branches of government – to build on successes and make continuous improvements to the security clearance process. Most importantly, however, we need to have difficult conversations about what should and should not exclude individuals from federal service in the national security space – making sure we take into account changes in legal standards, cultural and technological.
These efforts are essential to our national security.