News is spreading of dozens of White House employees that are still waiting for permanent security clearances and have been operating for months on a temporary status that allows them to handle sensitive information while the FBI probes their backgrounds.
Included in the backlog is the President’s son-in-law and Senior Advisor, Jared Kushner. Two U.S. officials said they do not expect Kushner to receive a permanent security clearance in the near future.
It is not uncommon for security-clearance investigations to drag on for months, but Kushner’s unique situation has cast a pall over the process in the minds of some, the same officials said — the problem with that is the process has been flawed for decades. It just happens that the spotlight now placed on such high level officials operating with only interim clearances is bringing the problem to the rest of the country.
So What is a Security Clearance?
According to the State Department: “Eligibility for access to classified information, commonly known as a security clearance, is granted only to those for whom an appropriate personnel security background investigation has been completed.”
“It must be determined that the individual’s personal and professional history indicates loyalty to the United States, strength of character, trustworthiness, honesty, reliability, discretion, and sound judgment, as well as freedom from conflicting allegiances and potential for coercion, and a willingness and ability to abide by regulations governing the use, handling, and protection of classified information.”
This process has only been made more complicated over the years as espionage cases have come to light. Every person once believed to have the qualifications listed above–who then betray that trust–make the whole process that much more important and that much more difficult.
The process is also made worse by incompetence, a lack of trained investigators and typical bureaucratic ineptitude. According to the Office of Personnel Management, from 2013 to 2016 the increase in wait times grew by 286% for a Secret clearance and 175% for Top Secret – with the longest adjudications taking upward of 18 months.
The OPM Inspector General attributed the delays “to the 2014 termination of the contract previously responsible for conducting the investigations, as well as funding shortfalls that affected the former Federal Investigative Services’ (FIS) ability to add more staff to the federal and fieldwork contract force.”
The termination of the FIS and activation of the National Background Investigations Bureau NBIB) in October 2016, promised to clear out the backlog but it never really came to fruition. So in late 2017, Congress took a page out of their own book and handed part of the process to someone else – the DOD.
In 2004, Congress took the clearance process away from DOD due to backlogs and handed it to OPM – and thus continues the bouncing ball.
Congress included a provision in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act that would give DoD complete ownership over the security clearance process for its own personnel– which accounts for nearly 75% of the clearances needed across the US government. But DOD’s proposed implementation plan is getting mixed reviews across the industry fearing it will create a parallel process and duplicative regime that will drain resources, cause further delays, hinder process improvements and undermine efforts to move the government toward true reciprocity across all departments and agencies.
It is all coming full circle since DOD was stripped of ownership of the clearance process 14 years ago. Now NBIB is losing its control for the very same reasons. Some things never really change. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) put the government-wide security clearance process on its “High Risk” list of federal areas in need of a desperate overhaul again last week. It last landed there in 2005- but any overhauls done in the interim don’t seem to have made any real difference.
**Featured Image Courtesy of USAF.mil