How a simple tweet opened frustration floodgates over security clearances

A single tweet on Thursday about something Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) said at the IBM ThinkGov event in Washington, D.C. created quite a bit of discussion and debate.

Hurd said he’d like to see the government be able to complete a security clearance in a week instead of six months or, in many cases, more than a year.

 

“Why does it take 10 months? Does talking to my neighbor who lived next to me 10 years ago have a better idea of me versus what I’ve clicked on over the past few weeks?” Hurd asked. “Why are we doing security clearances the same way as we did 100 years ago? We should be able to do a security clearance in one week. If you do that, you must make sure people [they’re] collaborating with in the private sector have the ability to share information.”

That single comment and ensuing tweet opened a torrent of frustration about the security clearance process that, while the feelings aren’t new, contractors and agencies seem to be getting less patient with the government’s efforts.

Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, wants to test out an approach to see if a federal employee can get a security clearance in a week. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

It’s not like the last three administrations haven’t recognized this problem, trying an assortment of approaches. The most recent statistics show progress against the backlog, which is a good sign, but far from a fix.

The National Background Investigations Bureau said the number of pending investigative matters stands at 542,000, down from 725,000 a year ago.

The Trump administration is transferring the NBIB to the Defense Security Service any day now, an executive order has been stuck in the ubiquitous “soon” of government talk for what seems like six months.

At the same time, agencies from the Air Force to the Office of the Director for National Intelligence to the Defense Information Systems Agency are testing new approaches or fixing the technology to accelerate the security clearance process but not lose any rigor.

The Air Force, for example, worked with the NBIB to establish temporary centralized interview hubs at 11 key locations where there is a high concentration of investigator case work and the mission in those areas needs immediate relief. Hubs are areas where security clearance interviews can take place without requiring someone to go to Washington to be vetted.

ODNI started to use a continuous evaluation approach in 2017 to supplement and enhance the current process, but not replace it.

While these two examples show change is possible, Hurd wants to transform the security clearance process even more quickly.

“I’ve had some conversations with smart people in the government about whether we can do a pilot project to try to streamline this process, and do it alongside people who already are getting their clearances to see if we can make it work,” Hurd, who became member of the Intelligence committee this session, said in an interview after his speech. “When I look at my initiative on the cyber national guard, one of the things that is getting in the way is the security clearance process.”

Hurd said the arduous clearance process impacts many of the issues he works on, which is why the he asked whether a week to get a security clearance is possible.

“My goal and my time will be spent on going out there to figure out a test case to do this and let’s introduce this,” he said.

Public, transparent standards needed

Hurd’s comments came as two other initiatives — one on Capitol Hill and the other from the Defense Department — kicked off to put more focus on security clearances.

Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) introduced the Integrity in Security Clearance Determinations Act to “ensure that the security clearance process is fair, objective, transparent, and accountable by requiring decisions to grant, deny or revoke clearances to be based on published criteria. It explicitly prohibits the executive branch from revoking security clearances based on the exercise of constitutional rights, such as the right to freely express political views, or for purposes of political retaliation. It also bans agencies from using security clearances to punish whistleblowers or discriminate on the basis of sex, gender, religion, age, handicap, or national origin.”

Warner and Collins said the bill also lets federal employees appeal decisions to deny or revoke a security clearance, and requires agencies to be more accountable and transparent about the results of those appeals.

Finally, the bill would apply more rigor and accountability of to the process to prevent abuses.

“The security clearance system is critical to protecting our country from harm and safeguarding access to our secrets. Americans should have the utmost confidence in the integrity of the security clearance process,” Collins said in a press release. “This bipartisan bill would make the current system more fair and transparent by ensuring that decisions to grant, deny or revoke clearances are based solely on established adjudicative guidelines.”

A major reason why Collins and Warner introduced this bill can be traced back to the Trump administration’s handling of security clearances for the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner as well as the administration’s decision to withdraw security clearances from former intelligence officials over political disagreements.

But if you take a step back from the big “p” politics of the bill, the move to continuous evaluation or using social media and other public information as part of the basis for a decision requires more transparency and accountability in the process.

And the need for transparency leads us to the second initiative around security clearances from last week. The Defense Digital Service released a request for white papers to collect ideas to develop a prototype for automated background and reviews.

DDS wants help transforming the process

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“The Defense Digital Service (DDS), in coordination with OUSD(I), will direct the creation of a prototype system that successfully collects a subject’s information, executes a background investigation (with automated and manual parts), and records an adjudication decision,” the request states. “This prototype will require integration with a wide variety of U.S. government and commercial databases to verify the subject’s identity and background information. Development of the prototype will be rapid and agile in nature, fielding new functionality to users for feedback every two weeks.”

Questions are due March 19 and white papers are due March 26.

DDS said it eventually will award a nine-month contract worth no more than $5 million to a vendor to build the prototype system.

The DDS efforts come as DISA has been modernizing the current online background investigation form for the last nine months and has been working on new technology to support the security clearance process since 2016. DISA recently transferred the technology infrastructure and employees to the Defense Security Service in early March as part of the consolidation effort.

With all this attention, the administration must not only make progress, but communicate how the security clearance process is improving while not losing any rigor. The opaqueness of NBIB’s efforts over the last year — aside from a recent update from ODNI’s Bill Evanina — has undoubtedly led to the frustration we saw when Hurd’s comments were spread to a broader audience.

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