Warner: We Need Revolution in Security Clearances
Senator Mark Warner, Vice-Chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, has a piece at The Cipher Brief titled, “We Need Revolution, Not Just Evolution” in Security Clearances.”
The recent announcement by the Government Accountability Office that the personnel security clearance process is back on its “high risk” list affirms what the national security community has known for the last several years: the current process is broken.
The U.S. government requires a well-functioning system for granting security clearances to make sure we have a workforce who can be trusted with our nation’s secrets. But the current system, born in the wake of World War II, when classified documents lived on paper and Telex, is simply too time-consuming, too expensive and too complex.
The clearance backlog and continued difficulty transferring a security clearance between federal agencies cost taxpayers millions, as intelligence and national security professionals must twiddle their thumbs for months after they are hired waiting for their clearance to come through. Too often, recently-vetted staff must start the process from scratch if they move to a job with a different agency or on a different contract.
Because many agencies and the companies that support them are located in my home state of Virginia, I’ve seen firsthand how these inefficiencies impact government personnel and contractors alike, undermining our ability to attract quality talent and field a reliable and trusted workforce in a timely manner.
I’ve also heard directly from national security professionals on the front lines about how we can fix our broken clearance system. Some issues can be improved with just a little bit of common sense: in the digital age, do we still need to conduct in-person interviews of an applicant’s neighbor? Are there better ways to anticipate who may become a security risk beyond simply having foreign relatives or living overseas? Can we continuously evaluate people’s trustworthiness rather than conducting a full reinvestigation every five or ten years?
While he correctly identifies the problem, he’s sketchy on the solution:
As Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I believe our committee has an important part to play, given our role in ensuring proper protections for our nation’s most sensitive information. The Director of National Intelligence, as the government’s Security Executive Agent, has a special perch to drive change. With our partners on Capitol Hill and across the executive branch, there is a window today to bring personnel vetting into the 21st century.
We face a unique opportunity to radically improve how we recruit and vet personnel to support sensitive government missions. And while the threats and challenges to the national security workforce are palpable, technology can allow us to gather information about individuals applying for access to our nation’s secrets much more readily, while still respecting their privacy.
But to get to the finish line, it will require more than a restating of the problem. We need a focused willingness from all stakeholders to commit the time, the political capital, and yes, the funding necessary to finally modernize our nation’s security clearance process.
That literally tells us nothing about what the “revolution” will look like. One suspects, however, that it will be televised.