Security Clearance Backlog Proves Costly

Washington Times: Security Clearance Backlog Proves Costly

The government’s backlog of defense security clearances, estimated to be as much as 270,000, is raising the salaries of those who hold them by 15 percent and costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

As far back as 1981, the General Accounting Office, Congress’ investigative arm, reported that nearly $1 billion was wasted each year because of the backlog. That much could be wasted even today, according to industry and former Defense Department officials who say the 90 days it should take to get a clearance has ballooned into 400 to 500 days.

The Defense Security Service has long had clearance backlogs. But new problems, exacerbated by the September 11 terrorist attacks, are increasing a once-shrinking backlog, according to government and industry reports.


The situation creates a Catch-22: People who work on classified projects can’t start work until they are cleared, and employees can’t be cleared until they are hired for a classified project.

Because the clearance goes with the employee, and not the employer, it’s easier for a business to hire a new employee cleared to work on a classified project if that person has been investigated — even if the investigation took place when the employee was working for someone else, Mr. Peter said.

That has made employers hesitant to hire those without clearances. And it means that workers with clearances earn salaries 15 to 25 higher than those without, Mr. Peter said.

“That takes precedence over qualifications,” he said.

“It’s definitely a positive or a plus if someone is coming in with a clearance,” said Jeff Adams, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin.

Demand is so high that some Washington-area job fairs require job-seekers to have clearances even before talking with employers. At a March career fair, those included businesses such as General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems.

Clearly, part of this is simply a matter of not having enough personnel to conduct security background investigations during a huge demand surge. The bigger problem, though, is an amazingly outdated process that was designed for a society in which we no longer live.

I got my first security clearance almost twenty years ago as a cadet. It wasn’t particularly difficult since I was 18 at the time, had never had a real job, and had been living in the same location since before my 16th birthday. Before my commissioning in 1988, I had to get a Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information clearance done because I was being branched Military Intelligence (although “detailed” to the Field Artillery). That one was quite a bit more intensive, going back fifteen years, but I was only 22 at the time so it was only mildly annoying.

Leaping forward several years, I started applying for jobs in the intelligence community about a year ago. Because I had been out of the military for over five years, my clearance went inactive. Even though the government had found me sufficiently trustworthy for a TS/SCI and there was no reason to suspect I had become less trustworthy, it’s as if I never had a clearance. Despite a background that is very desirable for defense contractors and the government alike, I’m ineligible for a lot of jobs because they’re closed to people without an active TS/SCI.

My current employer only needed me to have a Secret clearance, which is relatively fast, and hired me conditional on being able to obtain a clearance. I had to start over with fingerprinting and the idiotic paperwork. The process is based on the 1950s, when virtually everyone grew up in a single town and knew their neighbors. They want to be able to talk to neighbors and verify that you’re not in fact a godless communist homosexual* who would sell nukes to the Soviets. Of course, most of us move around a lot and hardly anyone knows their neighbors. At 38, listing all the places I’ve lived and the address, supervisor, and phone number of every employer I’ve had since I was 16 is an amazingly laborious process. Furthermore, I was only able to complete it with somewhat reasonable accuracy because (for no apparent reason) I still have every tax return I’ve ever filed and because I can Google apartment complexes and whatnot. Otherwise, I literally couldn’t remember the address, let alone the phone number, of the place I lived six years ago, since I was only there a year and have moved three times since then. And, of course, even if there are still people there they wouldn’t remember me or have anything useful to tell investigators. Indeed, I couldn’t tell you the last name, let alone the associational habits, of anyone who lives in my townhouse complex and I’ve been there since October.

In the computer age, all of this is amazingly silly, anyway. With fingerprints and a Social Security number, the federal government can obtain all the information they need in a matter of seconds. The clearance process really does nothing more than ensure people don’t have a criminal record, aren’t so far in debt as to be likely blackmail candidates, and ensure that hires don’t have ties to subversive organizations. The first two are much more easily and accurately done via computer search and the latter isn’t going to be found by asking neighbors.

Furthermore, there is little sense to it. Having a clearance only means that a person isn’t a criminal, has no serious history of drug abuse, and isn’t known to associate with subversive organizations. Almost everyone meets this standard. Real security comes from maintaining strict protocols in the handling of sensitive information and monitoring the activities of the people who handle that information once hired. Every single one of the people who sell information to our enemies or who inadvertantly leak it through carelessness has a clearance.

The current process is not only expensive, as outlined in the article, but costing the government the services of well qualified people. Hiring only people with an active security clearance limits the pool to people already in the system. Indeed, it is the ultimate government perk, creating what amounts to an exclusive club paid for at taxpayer expense. This is especially ironic now that it is clear that the existing intelligence bureaucracy desperately needs an infusion of new blood.

*My guess is this is no longer an issue; it was only one in the past because homosexuals were generally shunned by society and the threat of being “outed” was thought to make them a blackmail target. I only list it because the most amusing part of my TS/SCI process as a cadet was the interview with an MP captain who was completing the paperwork and had to ask me a battery of standard questions. There must have been a dozen questions on the issue of sexual orientation–Are you a homosexual? Have you ever thought about being a homosexual? Do you think you might convert to homosexuality at some point in the future?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. jen says:

    But James, surely you know that the government is reluctant to change anything that’s perceived as “working.” I don’t think the methods of investigating employee backgrounds will change anytime soon.

  2. Rich Gardner says:

    After each of the major spy cases (Walker and Ames) there has been the usual commission set up to determine what went wrong. And each time they have come up with the security clearance process needs revision, and that active monitoring of personal finances would uncover more than any of the investigations do. Intrusive, yes, and significant privacy concerns. But instead we have a system conceptionally mired in the 50s. The standards were based on profiles created in the 50s on US/UK esponiage cases in the 1940s/50s.

    But what you also have is a major jobs program, used to be DIS – Defense Investigative Services, now mostly outsourced, and staffed by, well frankly, folks that want to be criminal investigators but couldn’t pass the mustard. They are not all like that, but I certainly have seen quite a few when they come by the office and the word goes around, “Hey, who knew ‘John Smith’ when he was here?” and you are then quizzed about items that if you knew about him doing, you wouldn’t admit it or risk your own clearance (unless you are really dumb). And should the gumshoe find someone at home in your neighborhood, it is likely to be some retiree suspicious of everyone. And it is mostly pointless.

    I do have my last clearance submission on file (electronically) in case I ever need it, but after 19 months when I left, they still hadn’t started it, and couldn’t find it in the system. Making the system paperless is about the only update that had occured in the past 50 years.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Yep. And the system isn’t totally paperless, either. I had to fill out an entire background check for the FBI by hand a couple months ago.

  4. Jem says:

    I got a TS/SCI clearance in 1989 and was reinvestigated in 1994 and 1999-2002 (I filled out paperwork at least three times on that one–it kept getting lost someplace in the system). It took me until a month ago to find out that my clearance had been recertified in 2002. Lots of folks that currently have clearances are working on “temporary” extensions of their clearances because it takes so long to do updates. The whole process is like being trapped in a hall of mirrors–no one can tell you the status of your case, it just mysteriously gets adjudicated and your clearance/continued access approved

  5. joseph c. burrell says:

    how do i get a ts/sci security clearance for work? what is the procedure?

  6. joseph c. burrell says:

    How do i get a ts/sci security clearance for work? What is the procedure?