Plan Revamps Security Clearance Process

July 15, 2008
by Maryann Lawlor
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Say the words “security clearance” in a conversation with defense contractors, and the vast majority has a tale to tell of long waits and missed opportunities. Those two words have people in Washington, D.C., talking too. For two years, the organizations in charge of the security clearance process have worked hard to improve it. But for many, the time for revamping the old is over, and the time for creating a new process has begun.

Some experts who have followed promises of improvement for decades say talk is cheap and change costs money—the one element that has been missing from many of the plans. While the Security and Suitability Process Reform plan does not address this specific issue, it does focus on a number of problems that have been the downfall of patchwork solutions. The Joint Security and Suitability Reform Team, known as the Joint Reform Team, composed the plan in response to a presidential directive issued on February 5, 2008. The team comprised members of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the U.S. Defense Department, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the Office of the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

The plan outlines a number of steps that will be taken in the very near future to modernize and streamline security clearance processes governmentwide. Analysis of current procedures and new technologies concluded that the federal government is now ready to implement a process that collects and validates more relevant information at the application stage. The increased use of technology will expedite the process by reducing the work now conducted by humans. Field investigative activity will focus on collecting and validating specific information. Rather than trying to avoid all risk by spending an equal amount of time on each applicant’s information, the new approach is designed to shift attention—and resources—to applicants who may pose a greater risk if they were allowed to handle classified material.

Senior Airman Bernard Lee, USAF, Multinational Force–Iraq (MNF-I), plays the part of a contractor during a retinal scan demonstration at the MNF-I badging office. The scan is part of the security clearance and identification process for issuing official badges to contractors at the Ali Base in Iraq.
Several actions will be taken in the near term to achieve the changes set forth in the plan. First, a next-generation application that collects more relevant applicant information at the beginning of the application process will be developed. Second, “clean” Secret case files will be handled through automated adjudication, freeing personnel to focus on more complex cases. Third, automated record check capabilities will be developed for new cases. Fourth, an information technology strategy will be designed that enables these improvements to take root throughout the government.

As the OMB official responsible for improving the security clearance process since June 2005, Clay Johnson III, deputy director for management, is confident that this new reform plan is heading in the right direction.

To improve the current system, Johnson’s team members set specific performance goals, and perhaps more importantly, started holding themselves accountable for meeting those goals. According to Johnson, the increase in capacity and accountability reduced the amount of time needed for the investigation and adjudication stages from 160 days to about 112 days as of February 2008. “Our long-term goal—by December of 2009—is to complete these stages in 60 days, so we want to reduce it by a total of 100 days,” he says.

“The application is very, very important because a very large percentage of the issues that a particular applicant might have are self-identified in the application,” Johnson notes.

“Once they fill out the application and press ‘send,’ what we envision is that—and this will all be in the details to follow, and the devil is in the details—automatically, without human intervention, certain database checks will be made to confirm information such as does the person have the advanced educational degrees that he or she claims? Does he truly not have credit problems?” Johnson explains.

Automation also will play a part in the adjudication phase of the process. Using an eAdjudication decision support capability, portions of the current caseload for Secret clearances will be processed faster.

Additional plans for calendar year 2008 activity include clarifying government policy regarding the continuous evaluation of cleared personnel, modifying Standard Form 86 to permit research as part of the investigative routine and incorporating branching questions in the applications.

Although the plan aims at reducing workload by automating many of the current procedures, one item that is likely to increase is the requirement for funding to purchase and install new systems. To address this issue, Johnson reveals that the Defense Department has decided to scrap the idea of upgrading its primary security clearance technology, the Joint Personnel Adjudication System, and invest instead in a replacement that can be used governmentwide.


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