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Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Security Clearances Drop but Intelligence Problems Remain

Since the September 11 attacks, there has been a major problem within the intelligence community (IC): a drastic increase in resources but little coordination of efforts. This phenomenon has proven especially true when talking about the increase in personnel with security clearances. In 2013, the IC reached around 5.1 million government and contractor employees with clearances. The government does not have the capacity to perform security clearance background checks and periodic reinvestigations for all of these clearances, so has had to rely more and more on contractors to do them. This fact is troubling considering contractors whose motives are not necessarily in the public interest have gotten access to more of our country’s most confidential secrets. However, the number of clearances has gone down every year since 2013, a promising trend within the IC.

On June 28, 2016, the Office of Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) reported to Congress that the number of individuals eligible to hold a clearance decreased by 5.9 percent in FY 2015, going from 4.5 to 4.2 million. Although there are 15 separate institutions that make up the IC, only seven were able to report security clearance information. These were the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), FBI, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), NSA, and Department of State.

The report specified three types of eligible employees: government, contractor, and other. It additionally categorized the employees as either “in access” (“individuals who were investigated and adjudicated favorably and also were briefed into access to classified information”) or “not in access” (“individuals, such as those supporting the military, may be determined eligible due to the sensitivity of their positions and the potential need for immediate access to classified information, but may not have actual access to classified information until the need arises”). Even though there are four types of security clearances, the report broke them down into two categories of confidential/secret and top secret.

While there were across-the-board decreases in almost every category of employee, there was a 10 percent increase in the number of not-in-access contractors with confidential/secret clearance. The largest decrease was the number of not-in-access “other” individuals receiving confidential/secret clearance, which decreased by around 93.5 percent. This contributed to the finding that among all groups of total eligible individuals, which includes both in-access and not-in-access employees, “other” individuals receiving confidential/secret clearance decreased the most by around 32 percent.

Much of the decrease resulted from the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence’s data quality initiatives (DQI), which improved data quality in DoD’s primary security clearance record repository. The decrease was “the result of efforts across the [U.S. Government] to review and validate whether an employee or contractor still requires access to classified information.”

The Project On Government Oversight applauds ODNI’s reprioritization of resources from granting new clearances to rechecking old ones and reducing the backlog. This change will certainly bring better order and structure to the IC. Fewer individuals with security clearances means that less time and resources will be spent on the security clearance background check process. Fewer clearances also means there is less of a chance of a security breach in classified information simply because fewer people have access. Furthermore, the ODNI report asserts that government efforts to prioritize resources towards reinvestigating and reviewing existing cleared personnel will lessen the risk of a breach.

However, many problems still exist in the background check process. POGO has commented on the harm that is caused as contractors play a growing role in performing security clearance background checks. Last year, the major background check contractor, U.S. Investigations Services (USIS), agreed to forgo $30 million in contract payments to settle False Claims Act allegations that it “circumvented contractually required quality reviews of completed background investigations in order to increase the company’s revenues and profits” between March 2008 and September 2012. More specifically, USIS was charged with engaging in “dumping” or “flushing” of some 665,000 background checks by submitting incomplete or fabricated reviews. USIS was the firm that conducted the background investigations for Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis and NSA surveillance program whistleblower Edward Snowden, although it is unclear whether Snowden’s 2011 investigation was conducted during the litigated time period.

Lawmakers have attempted to address some of these problems. The first attempt was in Section 907 of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, which included recommendations to improve coordination between federal background checkers and state and local authorities, although they have yet to be put into practice. The 2014 OPM IG Act, which allows the Office of Personnel Management to investigate any potentially compromised background checks, was unanimously passed by Congress and signed into law. There are a number of other bills that have been introduced but have yet to see any substantial action in either chamber. They include policies that would increase punishments to federal workers who compromise the integrity of background checks, decrease the number of individuals with security clearances and the amount of classified information, create automated random searches of public records and social media accounts that belong to cleared employees, and prevent contractors from conducting quality checks on their own investigations.

The decrease in security clearances from FY 2014 to 2015 is a step in the right direction towards effective management of the intelligence community, but implementing DQIs and pushing for a more rigorous investigation process is just the tip of the iceberg. As a 2014 Government Executive article puts it, “too much classified information creates demand for too many individuals needing clearances, which puts pressure on investigators to emphasize quantity of background checks over quality.” If we solve our current problem of over-classification, there will be no need for so many security clearances and thereby shrink the total IC workforce, lessen its reliance on contractors, and free up a substantial part of the federal budget. More importantly, a smaller, more efficient IC could translate to a more competent one. And a more competent one will do a better job achieving the IC’s goal: protecting the American people.