WASHINGTON – Last month, reporters revealed that Jared Kushner and numerous senior White House officials were working without permanent security clearances.
They’re not alone.
At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Wednesday, lawmakers addressed the backlog of more than 700,000 people across the federal government who are waiting for security clearance approval. The problem is worsening by the year: in 2014 that number was 140,000.
“Clearly the current system is not optimal,” said Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina. “Why’s it take so damn long?”
The backlog has more than quadrupled since 2014. Wait times for clearances have doubled, which has hit applicants with delays of a year or more.
According to Jane Chappell, a Vice President at top defense contractor Raytheon, that means “new careers put on hold and top talent lost to non-defense industries.”
Chappell and representatives from three other defense contractors agreed that the security clearance system is in desperate need of an overhaul.
The current security classification approval process has remained “largely unchanged since it was established in 1947,” said Sen. Burr.
Each government agency has slightly different requirements for receiving a security clearance, and those clearances often can’t be transferred if someone moves to a different agency.
In particular, officials singled out the Department of Homeland Security, where moving between jobs can mean “a 100 day reappraisal process,” according to Sen. Angus King of Maine, a Democrat.
In 2004, Congress passed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which among other things, overhauled the clearance process. But hearing witnesses said both government and industry representatives said things have only gotten worse. At the same time, committee members said the government has failed to keep up with the times, often requiring in-person meetings for clearance, and requiring applicants to repeat information across multiple forms.
According to Chappell and others, there’s an urgent need for standardization across government agencies, new investigative methods, and increased funding to make it all run smoothly.
Joseph Kaplan, a lawyer with the firm Passman & Kaplan, which often deals with security clearance issues, said the simplest way to reduce the backlog would be to hire more people to review applications.
Both committee members and industry representatives also stressed the need to keep the security clearance process secure. Sen. Diane Feinstein of California cited the case of Edward Snowden, a former contractor with the National Security Agency who obtained security clearance and subsequently leaked secret information on massive warrantless data collection by the government.
“We’re never going to be able to reduce the risk to zero unless we stop hiring,” said David Berteau, President of the Professional Services Council.
As the government updates the clearance process, said Kaplan, care must be taken to avoid the politicization. If officials were to exclude applicants’ based on things the applicants said on social media, Kaplan fears citizens’ constitutional rights would be infringed.
“Much of the information that will be seen in someone’s social media will be protected first amendment speech, he said.