Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is trying to do a better job of protecting the skills and capabilities of the community’s workforce than it did during the 1990s drawdown.
The risks from sequestration are workers’ skills will atrophy and the intelligence community will have a more difficult time recruiting new employees.
“You know what I’m very committed to is the fact that I’ve seen this movie before,” Clapper said during a recent press briefing at ODNI headquarters in McLean, Va. “I served as the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency 20 years ago in the early 1990s. At the time, we were enjoying to reap the peace dividend occasioned by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. So the rationale was we didn’t need all that Cold War intelligence. So in the mid-to-late 1990s, we cut the intelligence community by somewhere in the neighborhood of 23 percent.” The across-the-board cuts — not a legal sequestration per se — closed CIA stations overseas, cut human intelligence and let the overhead reconnaissance architecture atrophy. In addition, the basics like power, space and cooling were neglected.
“And most painfully, we allowed the workforce to be distorted,” he said.
Most agencies have until Sept. 30 to cut about $85 billion governmentwide from discretionary spending.
No furloughs, for now
The good news is, Clapper said, no decision has been made around furloughs or even layoffs, but both still are on the table as possibilities.
The bad news, and there is plenty for every agency, is the IC will face a dilution of capabilities and people built up over the last 12 years.
“We are giving at the office as well, quite substantially. We are cutting real capability and accepting greater risk. Now for intelligence, this is not quite like shorter hours at public parks or longer lines at the airports,” he said. “For intelligence, it’s insidious. The capability we cut out today, you will not notice it. The public will not notice it. You’ll notice it when we have a failure and then we’ll go back and investigate it. Just know, intelligence is getting cut too.”
Clapper didn’t go into any details into what capabilities would be affected the most. He said like nearly every other agency the cuts mandated by sequestration will go across every program, project and activity.
ODNI still is reviewing the fiscal 2013 appropriations bill signed into law March 27 to see the impact on the 17 intelligence agencies. Clapper said once that analysis is completed, then he will have a better idea of whether furloughs are needed.
He said each of the 16 other IC agencies will make that decision based on their appropriation levels and other considerations, however.
Slowing down of security clearances
An IC-wide hiring slow down continues, Clapper said. The intelligence agencies are hiring only for the highest priority positions. Clapper said that’s something the IC didn’t do in the 1990s and is part of the reason it saw the skills of its employees deteriorate.
One area where the impact of sequestration could be more visible and be a potential unintended consequence of the reduced spending is the slow down or even stopping of some facets of the security clearance process.
Clapper said the progress the IC and the Defense Department have made over the past decade in speeding up the security clearance process is real. He said on average, 90 percent of all security clearances take 74 days, down from on average 374 days in 2004.
Clapper was quick to point out that this was the average for 90 percent of all clearances, and he understands there are plenty of examples of the process taking much longer.
But with across-the-board spending cuts, Clapper said the impact will be on follow up background investigations.
“In theory, you are supposed to get a background investigation update every five years. So that’s one thing people are making some decision about, again taking a risk because most, not all, but most investigations are done under the auspicious of OPM and that’s industrially funded so people pay for clearances,” he said. “Well, we have a lot less operations and maintenance money to pay for that. My old service, the Air Force, just made a conscious judgment because of fiscal challenges to suspend updates to investigations. There’s a security risk in doing that.”
The Navy and Marine Corps also issued a memo in early March, before Congress passed the appropriations bills, that they also would suspend all non-mission critical, high-priority security clearances.
The Navy and Marines for an update to see if that’s still the case now that Congress passed a budget. A request to both services about the status of security clearances processing now that the Defense Department has a budget wasn’t returned.
Reciprocity metrics hard to determine
Another part of the security clearance issue that will see a longer-term impact from sequestration is the acceptance of security clearance between agencies. Clapper said some progress has been made on improving reciprocity, but not as much as is needed.
He said a recent IC inspector general report highlighted the challenges.
“We are struggling a bit with coming up with metrics. Here’s the problem: every clearance transaction involving somebody, is that a reciprocity? If I show up and go visit DIA and they let me in, does that count as a reciprocity transaction?” Clapper said. “well, there are millions of those. I’m supposed to have a bean counter around to count all these reciprocity transactions. But that’s the problem we run into on how do you measure reciprocity and improvements in it?”
He added ODNI is taking several steps including promoting policies to encourage reciprocity and, over time, developing some databases to better enable more precision on exactly what clearances people have and also the compartments they have beyond that.
Clapper also announced two changes to the IC’s personnel policies, including the first IC-wide ethics policy.
At the same time, he updated the IC security clearance form, changing the SF-86 to let people who are victims of sexual assault and who received counseling answer “no” to the question of whether they’d ever received psychiatric help before.
As for the code of ethics, Clapper said he personally felt it was important to have the code of ethics for the entire IC.
“Some people might think that’s an oxymoron, a code of ethics for spies, but we do have our ethics. This is not a new thing across the intelligence community,” Clapper said. “I think virtually every component of it has some form of ethical code and so I thought it would be appropriate that we have one for the entire intelligence community,”
He said it’s not a law or regulatory document, but more of an understanding that there are some guiding principles for how intelligence employees should behave.
The code includes things such as truth, lawfulness, integrity, stewardship, excellence and diversity.
The change to the security clearance form follows the success of a similar change made for service members who received counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder. Clapper said the goal is to remove the stigma of getting counseling.