In the post-Sept. 11 world, defense security clearances are a precious commodity — raising the salaries of those who hold them by 15 percent and costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
The Pentagon’s Defense Security Service, which performs background checks on military and civilian personnel, has long had clearance backlogs. But new problems, exacerbated by Sept. 11, 2001, are again increasing a once-shrinking backlog, according to government and industry reports.
In short, the backlog is a national security risk, says a General Accounting Office report on personnel clearances.
“Recent events, such as the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, and several high-profile espionage cases have heightened national security concerns and underscored the need for a timely, high-quality personnel security clearance process,” said the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress.
The backlog is costing big money.
As far back as 1981, according to the House Government Reform Committee, the GAO was reporting that the backlog wastes nearly $1 billion each year.
That amount could still be lost, according to former Defense Department officials and industry representatives, who say the 90 days it should take to get a clearance have ballooned to 400 to 500 days.
“It markedly increases costs to both interests,” said Brendan Peter of the Information Technology Association of America, a defense industry group that represents contractors such as Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics.
The costs come in part from paying employees, in effect, not to work on contracts. That’s because people who work on classified projects through the Defense Department can’t start until they are cleared, but employees can’t be cleared until they are hired for a classified project, Peter said.
It’s quicker to transfer an employee’s clearance to a different contractor than it is to clear a new person, particularly someone recently out of college who might have had several addresses, requiring more investigative checks.
Because of that, employers now are hesitant to hire those without clearances.
“It’s definitely a positive or a plus is someone is coming in with a clearance,” said Jeff Adams, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin.
Peter said people with clearances — 2 million Americans have them — get salaries that are 15 percent to 25 percent higher.
“That takes precedence over qualifications,” Peter said, adding that every time someone moves to a new company, the salary goes up.
At Boeing, which is hiring for several clearance-level positions in St. Louis, spokesman Bob Jorgensen said hiring people with clearances is a high priority.
“Work is on our plate, and in terms of performance, we need to perform to our contractual obligations,” Boeing spokeswoman Barbara Murphy said.
Clearances are tie-breakers when all else is equal between job candidates, Jorgensen said. It means an employee can be productive his or her first day.
When it comes to recruiting recent college graduates, Jorgensen said, “There are many things that we can have engineers work on that don’t require security clearances.”
“As they express a desire to move into the defense side of the house, we can start processing that paperwork,” he added. In the meantime, engineers can work on commercial projects.
Murphy, however, said the paperwork for clearances can take up to 18 months.
Demand is so high that some Washington-area job fairs, such as those in which Boeing participates, require job-seekers to have clearances before they talk with potential employers.
“Basically the whole industry is searching for the same types of skills with the security clearances,” Murphy said.
“Higher salaries, pay for idle contractor employees and increased time to finish a contract: Eventually, all these costs end up on the plate of the taxpayer,” said Frank Blanco, executive vice president for the Security Affairs Support Association, an industry group representing 1,800 companies.
Whose job is it?
Most security clearances are the result of background checks by the Defense Security Service, which often interviews applicants and checks their FBI, police, court, school and workplace records. The service also confirms birth dates and places and interviews references.
That work — for about 800,000 applicants in fiscal year 2003 — is the chore of 4,200 people at DSS and another agency, the Office of Personnel Management. The GAO, however, said those agencies need almost twice that number — 8,000 people — to do the job properly.
DSS ultimately wants OPM to take on most of the background checks. Congress has authorized that switch, but the Secretary of Defense must certify that the personnel office can perform the checks to the satisfaction of DSS, including carrying out high-priority investigations quickly.
A Pentagon spokesman said that certification hasn’t happened. But the preliminary agreement has affected applications submitted since October, when this fiscal year began.
The cases — on a normal day up to 2,000 — kept coming, adding up to an estimated 120,000 so far this fiscal year. But because of the OPM-DSS dispute, current and former DSS employees say most of the new cases aren’t being worked on.
DSS contracts with the OPM to do some cases, but some estimate that only a few thousand have been sent to OPM this fiscal year. DSS employees aren’t sure what’s happening with them.
DSS said it is not ignoring cases. Rather, it has been sending groups of applications to OPM incrementally and gathering all the pieces necessary to send them to OPM throughout the fiscal year.
The OPM also must agree to permanently take on the investigations, something it appears reluctant to do. The GAO reports say senior personnel management officials have recommended the transfer wait at least until the end of fiscal year 2004, saying OPM isn’t ready to assume the financial risks.
No one officially knows exactly how big the backlog is, and both the GAO and the House Reform Committee, which oversees government acquisitions, say figuring that out is an important step toward eliminating it.
According to the government reports, DSS hasn’t tried in several years to quantify the backlog. The GAO estimated as of December that the backlog is at least 270,000 cases. But that doesn’t include cases that haven’t been submitted for investigation but should have been — estimated at 5,000 before the Sept. 11 attacks. Neither does it include about 90,000 cases that have been investigated but received no final clearances.
In response to queries last month, DSS officials said the agency has reduced its backlog to about 11,000.
“We are down to very few cases,” agency spokeswoman Caryl Clubb said, adding that DSS has made a “concentrated effort” to cut the backlog by augmenting its workforce with contractors and OPM help.
Industry groups also say they are baffled by the backlog.
“The thing is, there’s no (firm) numbers,” said Jason Cervenak, director of industrial communications at the Aerospace Industry Association, which represents companies whose workers are mired in the backlog.
According to the House Reform Committee report, DSS wanted to eliminate the backlog in 2000.
“They’re falling back again after 9/11 because of the huge influx in the security clearances required,” Cervenak said. Other industry representatives said outsourcing is driving up demand for clearances.
The committee report points to another glitch: For years, DSS has been trying to get its personnel security computer system to work. The initial $100 million spent on the system didn’t do it, and they’ve devoted at least another $100 million to the effort.
If OPM takes over investigations from DSS, that could mean shutting off the system, which GAO reports is now working correctly. Clubb, however, said that the system doesn’t provide all the necessary features for complete investigations and that OPM’s system is better.
But one DSS management official said the department is using the reputation of its computer system to justify the transfer and that the problems have been fixed. The OPM system, employees say, isn’t even based on Microsoft Windows.
Industry representatives worry that without more money and procedural reforms, the transfer would essentially move the problem to a new building.
Another possible solution is a new computer system called JPAS, which would complement the DSS system and allow easier access to pending clearance cases.
The new system would centralize information and let different agencies, and eventually contractors, check the status of investigations.
DSS’s statement said the system is being used by larger contractors, and facilities with the necessary security clearance are “being urged to gain access to JPAS as soon as possible.”
Another GAO report in the works will examine DSS’s work with defense contractors needing clearances. The House Reform Committee is planning hearings to coincide with the report’s release, probably this month, committee spokesman David Marin said.
“Our request to the GAO was very specific,” Marin said. “We asked them to conduct a study of the personnel investigation processes that are used to grant clearances to contractors.”
In March, the GAO issued its report on the DSS industrial security program. It provides clearances for facilities where classified information is accessed or kept by contractors whose employees have clearances. The report said DSS couldn’t guarantee its supervision of contractors reduced classified information leaks. It detailed the process by which contractors report potential leaks to the Defense Department and found fault with DSS oversight.
The committee has no plans for hearings on the industrial security report it received, but some senators still expressed concern.
In a letter to the GAO, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Carol Haave wrote: “As the title and primary conclusion of the draft report are not supported by the conduct of the review, the draft report is a disservice to personnel in industry and government who oversee the protection of classified information and is misleading to Congress.”
Another GAO report, released in February, details the personnel security backlog. It was requested by House Armed Services Committee ranking member, Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo. His office was not familiar with the recent report, citing a change in staffing, but said the issue was one about which Skelton has long shown concern.
In 1998, after a Defense Department employee was charged with espionage, Skelton asked for a GAO review of the clearance process.
When that report was released, Skelton said, “Personnel security investigations are a critical first step toward ensuring that individuals can be trusted to protect classified information. The problems found by GAO are very serious, and I believe that we must act on these recommendations for improving the investigative process.”
In response to the recent GAO report, Haave said, “However as necessary as one might deem these kinds of reports to be, they are demoralizing to a workforce that is valiantly attempting to achieve the good government all of us strive for.”
No hearings for that report have been scheduled.
No one is sure how far the various efforts will go toward fixing what many say is a deep-seated problem.
Derek Stewart, a member of the GAO team working on DSS reports, echoed the sentiments of many. “Those are really, really tough issues that nobody has the answer to right now,” he said. “Nobody.”