Security clearance process in need of makeover, expert says

In the wake of the NSA security leak, questions are being raised about the security clearance process for which Edward Snowden was subjected. One security clear...

By Melissa Dawkins
Special to Federal News Radio

The federal security clearance process is in need of a revamp, especially in light of recent revelations by a former contractor about the National Security Agency’s data collection and mining.

Evan Lesser, co-founder and managing editor of, a job-search platform for applicants with valid security clearances, told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp that agencies are taking a calculated risk every time they clear a citizen.

“The clearance process has improved over the years in terms of efficiency. It’s surely faster — more electronic. More people are getting their clearances faster,” Lesser said. “But at the same time, not a whole lot of improvements have been made to increase the quality of investigations.”

Lesser said updated questions are one of the key areas in need of attention.

“I think it’s pretty clear now that some new questions on the standard forms and in the investigations for clearance regarding use and misuse of technology systems, thoughts on openness of information on the Web, political leanings, are you a communist, and the applicant’s thoughts on privacy and secrecy, may need to be added or existing questions tweaked,” Lesser said.

In order to begin the screening process, a contractor or government agency must first sponsor the security clearance candidate. Applicants seeking national security positions are then required to complete Standard Form-86, a 127-page questionnaire, and are subject to background checks and an interview. Those in need of higher levels of clearance, such as Sensitive Compartmented Information Access, are subject to additional measures, including polygraph testing, according to

Questions on Standard Form-86 currently ask applicants about their job history, education, relatives, foreign travel and contacts, police record, drug use, and finances, among other topics.

“Without a doubt, too many questions could be a political nightmare,” Lesser said. “But at the same time, it seems that something has to change in order to get better information on clearance applicants.”

Edward Snowden, the contractor at the center of the NSA leak, is a high school dropout who served in the Army for four months before being discharged. He also worked for the Central Intelligence Agency before he was hired by Booz Allen Hamilton.

“There are definitely jobs where skills outweigh education. But in Mr. Snowden’s case, it appears that he was a systems administrator, which is not necessarily anything too highly specialized that the government is desperate to find,” Lesser said. “It will be interesting to know over time what Mr. Snowden had, in terms of skills, that made him so desirable that a high school education was not necessary.”

Seven of the 17 organizations comprising the Intelligence Community (IC) currently conduct their own security clearance investigations, including the CIA and NSA, according to the Report on Security Clearance Determinations for Fiscal Year 2010.

In 2012, 4.9 percent of security clearance reviews by the CIA were denied and 0.4 percent were revoked, while NSA denied 5.7 percent and revoked 0.3 percent, according to the ODNI’s 2012 Report on Security Clearance Determinations.

Overall, 4.9 million U.S. citizens held security clearances as of October 2012, according to the ODNI report. About one-million of those holding security clearances were government contractors.

Melissa Dawkins is an intern with Federal News Radio.


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