Government clearance backlog threatens our national security

Government clearance backlog threatens our national security
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Right now, more than 500,000 federal employees and government contractors are awaiting security clearances. That poses a serious threat. The enormous backlog of clearance applications is preventing highly talented analysts, engineers, coders and other top recruits from working on today’s most critical national security challenges.

Some applicants wait more than 350 days before actually starting their jobs. Unsurprisingly, a wait that long can result in highly qualified people who are desperately needed in our national security government jobs to take other employment due to the unreasonable delay.

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The high-stakes waiting game leaves our nation needlessly shorthanded at a time of unprecedented geopolitical turmoil. It also wastes taxpayer money. And if it continues, it will begin driving talent away from careers in the defense industry on a much larger scale. To keep America safe, the Trump administration should make ending the clearance backlog an urgent priority.

There are two main reasons for the current clearance buildup. The first is the headline-grabbing data breach that compromised the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in June of 2015. That hack forced the agency to shut down its systems for about a month to improve safeguards, bringing all background investigations to a halt.

A few months later, the Defense Security Service (DSS), the agency that reviews clearance requests before passing them along to OPM, suffered budget cuts. As a result, DSS temporarily stopped processing almost all requests for government contractors. In both cases, pending applications piled up quickly. In four weeks, DSS alone faced a backlog of 10,000 clearance applications. OPM is now working through roughly 500,000 requests.

The bureaucratic review process was already too slow, and these two incidents only made things worse. While investigations for mid-level clearances were supposed to take only 74 days last year, the average wait was about double that. “Top secret” clearances took more than 200 days to process during the first quarter of 2016 and close to 400 days to clear during the first quarter of 2017.

These delays are more than an inconvenience. The government contractors who build the aircraft, submarines, weapons systems and information technologies on which our national security depends can’t work without security clearances. With threats mounting each day, America can’t let qualified defense professionals sit idle or lose them to other industries that can hire, and pay, immediately.

Consider cyberwarfare, which nearly three in four Americans see as a critical threat. It’s easy to see why, as hackers attempted to infiltrate both the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee last year, demonstrating how a cyber attack could disrupt our institutions.

The Department of Defense has pledged to add over 1,000 individuals to its cyber teams across the military by next year to meet the growing demand for talent. But if America’s best developers and engineers remain trapped in regulatory limbo, meeting that goal will be impossible.

Cyberwarfare is just one of today’s menaces. Countless others abound. The current clearance system wastes taxpayer money. Newly recruited defense professionals still get paid by their employers during the time it takes for background checks to come through. And when employees get tired of waiting for their clearances and quit, defense contractors must put time and money into a new hiring cycle. Indeed, the clearance build-up could soon start driving talent away from careers in defense.

Late last year, the Office of Personnel Management launched a new office, the National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB), to help modernize the clearance process. But that agency is just beginning to taking shape. In the meantime, there’s much that the executive branch can do.

One step is to eliminate application redundancy. Some agencies immediately grant applicants a certain clearance level if they have met the requirements for that clearance at a different agency. To minimize wasteful reapplications, federal regulators should make this policy, called reciprocity, mandatory across all agencies.

The Trump administration could also ask Congress for funding to help agencies bolster staff for clearance applications. The NBIB, for example, took on 400 new investigators in 2016 and aims to enlist 200 more in 2017. While it’s admittedly difficult for national security agencies to be simultaneously quick and thorough during the vetting process, shoring up clearance review staff would hasten the process.

The clearance buildup is already hindering vital projects, squandering resources and discouraging talented Americans from pursuing national security jobs. By enacting immediate, practical reforms, President Trump and his team can eliminate this backlog — and make sure our nation remains safe.

Michael James Barton, a policy fellow at Artis International, served as deputy director of the Middle East Policy Office in the Office of the Secretary at the Department of Defense from 2006 to 2009. He served on the Homeland Security Council at the White House from 2003 to 2006.