Rethink the whole federal security clearance process, says industry observer

Working as an investigator for OPM’s National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB) must seem like looking for a light at the end of tunnel. With a backlog of 700,000 cases on file, the NBIB is being squeezed on one side by contractors who need clearances to win government business, and by agencies who need to fill critical and sensitive positions on the other. But fast-tracking is no longer an option in the post-Edward Snowden era.

Trey Hodgkins, Sr. VP, Public Sector at the Information Technology Industry Council

“There been a robust conversation for some years now about how we basically still use a process that was created in the Eisenhower era. We still send people to neighbors to ask about our applicants,” Trey Hodgkins told Federal Drive with Tom Temin. Hodgkins is with the Washington-based Information Technology Industry Council, which advocates for the high tech sector. His clients include many of those contractors looking to fill government needs in the IT and cybersecurity workforce.

The NBIB is hiring more investigators and trying new ways to reduce the backlog. But the resources aren’t there yet.

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“They haven’t been able to put enough resources on the applications that are already in queue, much less the ones that continue to come in,” said Hodgkins.

And so, for the contractors, just like the ones wanting to go to work for NBIB, they sit and wait. It forces contractors into some uncomfortable positions.

“Contractors have employees that we want to put on contract, but we can’t get them approved,” said Hodgkins.” And so we have to make a decision about whether we are going to pay an employee for 300 or 500 days to  keep them on the payroll so we can retain those skills, or let that contractor go and try to find someone with a clearance.”

Hodgkins said there was a practice ten years ago where companies would poach cleared employees from another company by offering them a premium. “That’s begun to reappear in the marketplace.”

The problem is, the government uses the same pipeline. It’s vying for the same talent.

The process of doing security clearances has also been criticized, both for its tortoise-like pace and for its effectiveness. The Snowden case and other high profile incidents have prompted a robust conversation about how the clearances are conducted.

“We don’t look consistently across the board at new measures for determining if people are suitable for clearance — like social media. It’s not a uniform practice for our investigative capabilities.”

“We also should begin to think about using big data,” said Hodgkins. “We have this tremendous trove of data about people who have gotten clearances. We should use today’s analytic capabilities to assess that and determine if there are patterns or other indicators we should try to identify.”

So resources and new thinking about how to conduct security clearances are part of the answer for Hodgkins. But to solve the underlying issues, he said it has to become automated. By using commercially-available data bases to look at credit status, marital status, criminal background and other information, Hodgkins said the government could create a 21st century investigative capability.

Hodgkins likes the idea of a  digitized application as the bedrock for a person’s record, one that can serve as a basis for continuous monitoring.

“Then, whenever a name pops up, we’ll know a more thorough investigation is required,” he said. “We have to get there to avoid staying in the situation we are in today.”

Another element under legislative consideration is a move to break apart the entire process. The NBIB was created in the wake of the OPM breach to give more stakeholders in the government the opportunity to be part of the management of the process. But the power still lies within OPM. That has been frustrating for some,  like the Defense Department (DoD).

There is language in the Defense Authorization Bill this year to pull all of the applications from the DoD community back to the Pentagon.

“Our message to the Hill is that this does not align with the ideal situation for clearance,” said Hodgkins. “When you break apart investigations you give agencies further basis to say ‘well, you have a Top Secret, but it wasn’t investigated the way we would investigate it.’ If we break this apart, we’re not fixing the underlying problem about lack of investigators or the process itself, we’re just bifurcating it.”

And then there’s the privacy issue. Should those with Top Secret clearance be afforded the privacy of those who don’t? Hodgkins said once someone receives the highest security clearance, they should be open to any scrutiny.

“We do regard it as a privilege to be able to receive a clearance as a status across federal government,” he said. “Industry’s perspective is that in asking them to grant you that privilege, you are, in exchange, letting them look into any aspect of your life. There is no privacy. The only thing to protect is the interest of the government.”

Hodgkins said agreement on such a dynamic would require debate. “Our reading of the existing regulations allow the dynamic I’ve described, but there are concerns out there in communities that probably will need to have some legislative attention to address their issues and make sure everyone is satisfied. “