Why some security clearance cases are taking longer in recent months

The average timeline for investigating top-secret security clearance cases was on a steady rise throughout fiscal 2023.

It’s been taking the government longer to process top-secret security clearance cases in recent months, but officials attribute the increase to temporary issues.

The latest update on the Trusted Workforce 2.0 initiative, posted to Performance.gov recently, shows the fastest 90% of initial top-secret clearance investigations took an average of 115 days in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2023. That’s a marked increase from the fourth quarter of fiscal 2022, when the average was 84 days.

The numbers represent investigations done by the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency, which conducts the vast majority of clearance investigations across government.

The update shows timelines for investigating top-secret clearances were on a steady rise throughout fiscal 2023. The good news is the average timeline for conducting initial secret-level clearance investigations has not taken a major hit.

Source: Trusted Workforce 2.0 fourth quarter fiscal 2023 update via Performance.gov.

The Performance.gov update attributes the recent uptick in top-secret timelines to two primary issues. “Timeliness has increased temporarily due to closing of some older, complex cases and temporary IT outages,” the update states.

The background investigations backlog has also risen slightly, with the total investigative inventory peaking above DCSA’s “steady state” target of 200,000 cases at any one time.

Source: Trusted Workforce 2.0 fourth quarter fiscal 2023 update via Performance.gov.

“The increase in investigative inventory was caused by higher-than-expected submissions throughout [fiscal 2023], a transition to new contracts, and a system outage in September,” the update states continues. “DCSA is managing the case surge.”

Delving into the numbers any further gets challenging, because the data on end-to-end security clearance processing is one quarter behind due to “collection and analysis methods,” according to the Performance.gov update. End-to-end timelines measure the three major processes of a security clearance case: initiation, investigation, and adjudication.

What it shows is the fastest 90% of initial top-secret clearances took an average of 164 days in the third quarter of fiscal 2023. It was taking an average of 128 days in the previous quarter.

And the investigations timelines weren’t the only issue in that third quarter — adjudications were also taking a lot longer, too. Adjudication is the process for determining whether someone should be granted a clearance or not after that person has gone through a background investigation.

Source: Trusted Workforce 2.0 fourth quarter fiscal 2023 update via Performance.gov.

It took an average of 55 days to adjudicate a top-secret case in the third quarter of fiscal 2023, up from 28 days on-average in the second quarter.

What’s notable about jump in adjudications is the timing. The third quarter of fiscal 2023 stretches from April through June, the same time when details were emerging about a Massachusetts Air National Guardsman who allegedly leaked highly classified secrets online. That individual had a top-secret clearance, despite a history of disturbing online behavior and being denied gun application over making threatening remarks in a high school class.

The Pentagon subsequently moved to tighten access to top-secret information.

The upshot from the Performance.gov update is that while clearance timelines are on the rise, they are nowhere near the delays seen during the height of the background investigations backlog in 2018. During that time, it was taking an average of more than 400 days to conduct a top-secret investigation and more than 160 days for a secret-level investigation. The backlog at that time peaked above 700,000 cases.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is setting ambitious new targets for processing security clearances under the Trusted Workforce 2.0 initiative.

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