Deep Background

Security–clearance background screening: “Not where it needs to be”

Great changes came recently to the U.S. government’s system of background screening on security-clearance applicants, and they were made in response to serious problems that emerged more than three years ago.

The trouble started in September 2013, when a civilian Navy employee shot 12 people to death at the Navy Yard in Washington. Details emerged that the attacker had reported “hearing voices,” and had told Seattle police after an earlier arrest for shooting out a man’s tires that he had been in an “anger-fueled” blackout.

There were other problems, too: The Justice Department had launched a probe into USIS, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management security-clearance contractor that had cleared Edward Snowden, who later leaked millions of NSA documents. Soon it emerged that USIS employees were under so much pressure to quickly wrap up due-diligence checks that some were faking them, according to statements by U.S. government officials that were partly acknowledged as true by the firm.

Then, in June 2015, OPM announced that its network had been breached by hackers. Chinese intelligence is suspected in the theft of sensitive files on 21.5 million U.S. officials and their relatives. USIS’s background-screening contract was terminated, and in fall 2016 the government launched a new U.S. agency, the National Background Investigations Bureau or NBIB, to do security clearances. It is facing substantial obstacles.

USIS’s dismissal, plus a temporary hiring freeze, have caused massive backlogs in finishing clearance reviews. The most recent data available, from fall 2016, showed that the backlog in pending “secret” clearances was 343,557, and at top secret was 72,566; another 156,172 re-investigations were also unprocessed.

Charlie Phalen, a former CIA security chief who runs the new NBIB, said one priority is using technology to more efficiently receive information about applicants from agencies outside NBIB. On that coordination issue, Phalen said, “it’s not where it needs to be.”

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