Clearance Woe

I got a short boost of joy reading about (yet another) move by the government to reduce the waiting time for security clearances. The demand for clearances has gone well past the roof but the approach to granting them is still stuck in the mud. The bulk of the wait comes from the long background interview process in which not only are the people you put down as references interviewed about your character, etc., but a much larger network of interviewees is built (and subjected to the same process) by asking your references to supply references (ad nauseum). The idea is that you’re probably only going to put down as references people who will say very nice things about you. By expanding the network the investigators improve the chances that they will find someone who might say things that are not so nice, until someone gives up that – oh yeah, you spent that one summer between Jr. and Sr. year in Pakistan “visiting historical landmarks.”

The process has many flaws, but none as severe as the one pointed out in the story of an Iraqi (?) immigrant who held a TS clearance while working as a translator in Iraq. How bad is it? The government isn’t even sure of the guy’s name.

Security and counterintelligence folks will go apoplectic if you start talking about improving the clearance process, and they will point to stories like the one just mentioned as evidence. There is a flip side to that coin: if the process is so great HTF did Mr. X get through? I mean, read the statements of the FBI and ICE agents in the translator story ask yourself how they can utter those words with a straight face?

If security is just a matter of checking off boxes on a form then this is one of the few problems that can actually be “solved” by our Uncle’s favorite approach: throwing bodies at it. That is in essence the government’s solution today, with every under-employed liberal arts grad and retired FBI/IRS/SS agent working as a contract background investigator by the various firms employed by DSS and OPM to conduct interviews and perform records checks. The young woman who interviewed me for my last five-year update had only voted in one Presidential election and unlike her I could recite the interview questions from memory; the retired Bureau man who did the previous check-up didn’t need a cheat-sheet but he did forget his ‘Creds at my house. Impressed?

Jabs aside, the current system needs an overhaul that goes beyond a more-of-the-same methodology.

For starters we need to dig deep and figure out just what ought to be classified and at what level. The problem of over-classification is well known, and if corrected would reduce both the volume of material that needed protection and the need for highly cleared people.

That’s step two: cutting back on clearance holders. If you get a job at an intelligence agency processing payroll you will be given a clearance. Same goes for a lot of administrative and support jobs. Having the badge makes life a lot more convenient, but it doesn’t improve security. Back-office stuff that doesn’t involve classified? Outsource it or detach it from the HQ and send your newly uncleared workforce to a telework center.

Step three is injecting automation into the process. Much of your clearance file is an actual physical file; what is this, the 50s? Some automation is already in the works, but as usual a lot of money has been wizzed away. VCF redux? God, I hope not.

Automating the process speeds up the back-end but you also need to look at automating as much of the investigation as you can. Your full name and SSN run through the credit bureaus and other major data brokers should produce plenty of material from which to launch a really focused background investigation. Where you get and how you spend your money, where you have traveled to and when, etc., etc. Stop wasting time asking broad-spectrum questions of people who might remember this or that and focus on facts. Kick the in-person interviews off after you’ve gathered all your ducks in a row.

Plenty of other ideas but it is time to pay the mortgage. Bottom line: this is a problem that is eminently fixable but it requires breaking china. In the words of Miracle Max, “Have fun storming the castle.”

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