Security clearance demands are exploding and government must keep up
Costly security breaches, including the SolarWinds attack and the Colonial Pipeline ransomware scheme, are an increasing threat to national security. The federal government’s frontline defense is a combination of public sector civil servants and private sector contractors who, together, protect both the online and bricks and mortar assets of our nation.
The sensitive nature of our nation’s security demands that most members of this workforce undergo a robust security clearance process to ensure they are able and willing to safeguard the nation and its national security information and assets.
The United States, however, is at a critical inflection point. The number of individuals with a security clearance has plummeted 17% since 2013 — igniting fierce competition between government and private sector partners for cleared talent. Moreover, ubiquitous over sharing on social media, the crazy quilt of state and local drug laws and structural racism built into the security clearance process can make it difficult, to nearly impossible to recruit and expeditiously hire the next generation of our national security workforce.
The government’s security clearance standards must evolve to reflect certain cultural realities. With millions of data points floating in the online ether on every individual, the federal government must reconsider how it makes a fair and complete assessment of security clearance applicants. And it must adapt in ways that prepare us to tackle novel security challenges that are increasing in volume. Failure to do so leaves a gaping hole in our nation’s security. The stakes are high.
The need for cleared security personnel is burgeoning. According to the Greater Washington Partnership, roughly 9% of all job postings from Baltimore to Richmond, require a security clearance.
Right now, a top security clearance job website has posted more than 25,000 open jobs in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. — each one requiring a security clearance. Most of those positions are systems engineers, software developers, program analysts and network engineers.
Globally, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) data show that in 2019 roughly 2.9 million individuals — government employees and private sector contractors — held a U.S. federal security clearance. Of those individuals, 1.7 million hold confidential or secret clearances and just under 1.3 million hold top secret clearances. According to ODNI, however, nearly 1.3 million additional individuals are determined to be eligible for security clearances by virtue of their positions, yet they do not have clearances or access to sensitive information.
At a recent roundtable hosted by my Subcommittee on Government Operations, 13 public and private sector participants highlighted how difficult it can be to fill these critical jobs quickly. Moreover, these companies struggled to move its cleared employees from one contract to another because some agencies often languish when determining whether to accept a clearance approved by another agency — a process called reciprocity.
For example, Booz Allen Hamilton officials stated that each year they await clearance approvals for 500 individuals at any given time. The company also seeks reciprocity for 4,400 clearances annually among agencies. CACI stated that it has more than 15,000 individuals who are cleared or awaiting clearance on staff and more than 2,500 open jobs posted that require individuals who have clearance. Northrop Grumman has 69,000 employees who hold security clearances, with 4,300 awaiting clearance before they can start working. NT Concepts, by comparison, a smaller business with 139 employees, has 99 cleared individuals on staff and nine jobs posted for individuals requiring a clearance. Another small sized business, iWorks, has 90 employees with 82 cleared individuals, eight more individuals awaiting clearance and 14 open job postings that require clearance.
These job vacancies, stalled background checks and delayed reciprocity applications mean revenue loss for the companies. More importantly, however, they mean that the federal government cannot effectively execute national security missions.
In 2018, ManTech, a consulting and digital solutions contractor with the government, testified that approximately 10,000 contract positions critical to the Intelligence Community alone remained unfilled, representing $1.8 billion in lost services contract support for critical missions. This was out of a $71 billion annual intelligence budget.
According to the National Security Alliance, a trade association of contract security companies, in 2019 security clearance processing delays — caused predominantly by some agencies’ unwillingness to engage in reciprocity — may account for as much as $2 billion in lost productivity in the Intelligence Community and up to $8 billion for the federal government as a whole.
Despite the lack of availability of cleared individuals, the background investigation and adjudication processes have been improving in efficiency over time. In FY2018, for example, the federal government approved only 668,546 security clearances. In FY2019, however, the federal government approved 964,138 clearances — a 44.2% increase over a single year. And the increase was in both Secret and Top Secret investigations.
Yet there is more work to do. While the speed of the clearance process improves, cleared workforce demands are exploding. Private sector companies have thousands of jobs they need to fill and not enough individuals to fill them.
Since mid-2018, the Government Accountability Office placed security clearances investigations on its “High-Risk” list of government programs in dire need of improvement and reform. Security clearances landed on this list for myriad reasons, including concerns about the timeliness of investigation completion.
Congress can play a vital role in improving these processes and ensuring the executive branch is recruiting diverse talent as a pipeline into the national security community. For example, the SECRET Act, which I wrote with former Rep. Steve Knight, as well as my FY2020 National Defense Authorization Act amendment improve clearance adjudication backlogs by tracking the background investigation and adjudication processes — allowing agencies and Congress to pinpoint where problems persist and focus on solutions.
Additional congressional oversight has been effective in spurring improvements that reduced the backlog of background investigations. We must work across the enterprise of government — and across the branches of government — to leverage successes and make continued improvements to the security clearance process. Most importantly, however, we must have difficult conversations about what should and should not exclude individuals from federal service in the national security space — ensuring that we take into account changes in legal, cultural, and technological norms.
These efforts are critical to our national security.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) is the chairman of the Government Operations Subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.