New clearance ideas aim to make national security workforce more mobile, diverse

Inconsistent policies and processes are making it harder for defense and intelligence agencies to recruit and retain the people with critical skills.

If the governmentwide “Trusted Workforce 2.0” initiative is a once-in-a-generation chance to modernize and streamline the personnel vetting process, then the Intelligence and National Security Alliance isn’t sitting on the sidelines.

Personnel vetting reform is one of the White House’s top performance initiatives, with published strategies and action plans. And agencies have already made strides in adopting continuous vetting and speeding up the background investigations process in recent years.

But INSA is continuing to offer new ideas and poke holes in current policies and processes, most recently with new white papers on security clearance mobility and clearing personnel with foreign ties, respectively.

Larry Hanauer, vice president for policy at INSA, said the group is staying engaged with Congress and the intelligence community on major clearance initiatives, like continuous vetting and the development of the National Background Investigative Services.

“We also look at ways just to make the clearance and adjudication process more efficient for both government staff and contractors,” Hanauer said in an interview for Inside the IC.

The mobility paper, for instance, dives into inconsistent policies and processes that make it challenging to move personnel who need Top Secret Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS/SCI) clearance from one agency to another.

The issue is most acute for contractors who often move personnel across multiple contracts and agencies. But it can affect recruiting for both agencies and industry.

For instance, some intelligence agencies allow personnel who already have TS/SCI clearance to begin work while they wait for their polygraph test, while others make those employees wait until the polygraph is complete. Depending on the type of polygraph needed, that can mean a delay of anywhere from 30 days to 18 months.

Greg Torres, the director of personnel security at Booz Allen Hamilton, said the net result is a small pool of personnel who are qualified to start work under contracts immediately.

“This means we’re just shuffling the deck chairs, moving someone from one government mission to another, making a hole somewhere else,” Torres said. “And we usually need to pay a premium for that employee to leave their current job.”

INSA’s white paper recommends intelligence agencies consider the counter-intelligence polygraph sufficient for personnel to begin work until a full-scope polygraph can be scheduled.

“We think this is a risk management approach, which we think is the right approach given the myriad tools that these agencies now have to mitigate any perceived risk,” Torres said. “If you think about it years ago, they didn’t have tools like continuous evaluation or user activity monitoring and a host of other tools. But they do now.”

The white paper also recommends the Defense Department eliminate component-specific requirements for granting SCI access and name a senior official in charge of developing department-wide policies for such access.

INSA estimates additional and disparate processes across the 43 DoD components can result in delays of two to five weeks beyond the few days it takes for a component to initially accept an individual’s clearance. And it recommends clearing Top Secret applicants at the SCI level, as well, so additional processes don’t delay that individual if they require SCI access in the future.

DoD and the IC should also put an official or team in charge of uniting policies that affect personnel mobility, from clearance reciprocity to polygraphs to contract language and industry coordination, according to INSA’s paper.

“Since the 9/11 attacks, the government has made really a concerted effort to make sure that intelligence is shared, so you can work at agency X, and you’re accessing intelligence information that comes from agencies Y and Z,” Hanauer said. “Why, if you’re going to go support agency Y or Z, should those agencies have to re-adjudicate your clearance or ask the different investigative steps be done all over again? … It’s these really duplicative processes that don’t add anything to security.”

Re-examining foreign ties

Clearance and mobility processes can also present barriers to the intelligence community’s goal of increasing diversity in the national security workforce. Contractors often compete for the same people who are already cleared at the highest levels, and new applicants can be dissuaded from going through a lengthy, often confusing process.

“If you keep moving the same people around from place to place, you’re not going to be as successful as you as you could be,” Torres said on diversity.

INSA’s new white paper on “recruiting and clearing personnel with foreign ties” also dives headlong into diversity issues, positing that the security clearance process “does not lend itself” to hiring individuals with different backgrounds and experiences who may have key language and cultural skills.

The paper said the intelligence community needs to “re-examine historical assumptions about the risks posed to national security by foreign-born persons or those with close foreign ties.”

Adjudicative guidelines for granting or revoking a clearance requires agencies to examine factors like allegiance to the United States, foreign influence, and foreign preference.

But INSA suggests investigators could look at those aspects from a risk mitigation approach, as opposed to eliminating all risk.

“Investigators are never going to be able to learn everything they want to know about a candidate’s uncle in rural China somewhere, but they can assess whether such a family tie really affects a candidate’s loyalties or creates security risks that can’t be mitigated,” Hanauer said.

The paper also recommends mission-focused teams, such as analysts, work more closely with their counterparts in security and human resources, respectively, to ensure candidates with critical skills don’t get easily dropped from the clearance process because of foreign ties.

“We just feel like better communication between the human resources people, the mission-focused teams that want to hire a candidate, and the security folks will help ensure that people with those critical skills don’t just hit that brick wall,” Hanauer said. “The mission-focused teams might be able to provide the the security team, with additional insights into the reasons why this candidate is facing obstacles.”

The white paper also recommends bias awareness training for all officials responsible for recruitment, hiring, investigations and adjudications. Meanwhile, new policies and procedures could consider a more granular consideration of foreign ties, INSA’s paper suggests, such as reasons behind why a candidate wants to hang onto a dual citizenship.

Hanauer said that INSA is now working on a white paper comparing how commercial companies screen their job candidates and contrasting it with the government’s clearance approach.

“Commercial companies … manage to protect their sensitive information pretty well without subjecting their job candidates to a months-long vetting process,” he said. “We’re in the process of doing a comparison of public sector and private sector personnel screening to see if maybe the government can adopt some more efficient best practices from industry.”

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