Bouncing the Security Check

Tech Central Station

June 1, 2004

The massive hiring in the security sector in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks has left us with a huge backlog of people waiting for federal security clearances. A recent General Accounting Office report estimated the total at 360,000 — including 188,000 civilian contractors for the Defense Department alone. The average time to obtain a Top Secret clearance has ballooned to well over a year.

All observers agree that this backlog has serious consequences, including substantial cost overruns, long delays in bringing in experts in the high tech sector desperately needed in the war on terrorism, and the loss of people who get other offers while waiting for their clearance.

Moreover, it skews the hiring process. Rather than pay employees for a year or more awaiting a clearance, many firms simply will not look at a candidate who does not already have a clearance in hand. As a senior manager told the Washington Post, “We’re essentially creating a new class of people here, where a clearance takes precedence over skills or ability, and that’s sad.”

The GAO cites several reasons for this problem, including too few people to handle the new workload; an increase in the proportion of personnel requiring time-intensive Top Secret clearances; inaccurate estimates by agencies of how many clearances they would need; and the fact that clearances granted by one government agency are not always accepted by others. While these issues no doubt need to be addressed, a far more serious issue is that the process itself is hopelessly outdated, designed to meet the needs of a Cold War world in which we no longer live.

The amount of paperwork necessary to apply for a Top Secret clearance is simply staggering. The SF-86, which is increasingly completed electronically but is still done on paper by several agencies, requires applicants to give extensive information on every school, employer, and residence they have had from their sixteenth birthday to present, including the names, addresses, and phone numbers of two neighbors from each place. While this was simple enough for a typical applicant in 1950, joining right out of high school or college and having lived in the same town his entire life, it is a daunting task indeed for someone in today’s mobile society. Most applicants in their thirties have had numerous jobs, lived in several states, and barely know their current neighbors, let alone the whereabouts of people with whom they were casually associated in 1985. Further, even if the applicant can find this information, almost all of the bosses, co-workers, and neighbors have likely themselves moved on.

Once the form is processed, an investigation is launched by one of several agencies (there is not a single process that covers the entire federal government) into a dozen areas: a national agency check to verify that people have not had run-ins with the FBI, have paid their taxes, registered with the Selective Service, and look into their military service; a credit check to ensure that the subject is not so deeply in debt as to be a blackmail target; local agency checks for each place lived during the investigation period; citizenship records for the subject, his immediate family, and anyone with which whom he has cohabitated; corroboration of education records; review of employment records, including interview with supervisors and coworkers; interviews with neighbors and others listed on the SF-86 which are done solely to generate leads for others to interview; national agency checks on current and former spouses and other cohabitants; various other public record checks to answer any questions about bankruptcy, divorce, and criminal and civil cases raised by the investigation so far; and, finally, a subject interview to resolve any inconsistencies. For especially sensitive positions, polygraph and drug tests will also be administered. It is also noteworthy that most this check is repeated periodically even for people who have received a clearance.

The point of this exercise is to ensure that the person in question is loyal to the country, emotionally stable, and does not engage in a lifestyle that would make him susceptible to blackmail. While these goals remain vital, almost all of the current process is unnecessary in the computer age. With fingerprints and a Social Security number, a reasonably competent government researcher can obtain all the information he needs in a matter of seconds. Indeed, the lady who signs new tenants at the apartment complex, the guy at the pawn shop who sells firearms, and the girl who takes your American Express at your favorite restaurant do it every day. The added value of talking to nosy neighbors and bitter ex-spouses is questionable at best.

The clearance process really does nothing more than ensure people do not have a criminal record, a history of drug abuse, so much debt as to be likely blackmail candidates, or ties to subversive organizations. Almost everyone meets this standard. Real security comes from maintaining strict protocols in the handling of sensitive information and monitoring the activities of the people who handle that information once hired. Remember, Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames had the highest clearance known to man and still sold secrets to our enemies.

Original article