How do you fix the security clearance process?
The security clearance process is not a real-time, ongoing endeavor. Instead, someone applies for a government or contractor job that requires a clearance, some sort of background check is done, and a clearance decision is adjudicated. Next case, please. Most clearances are only reviewed every five years and then investigators lean heavily on anything new or changed, and especially on the subject’s performance those five years. Even agencies that use the polygraph employ an abbreviated version of the test when renewing a security clearance. There is no 365/24/7 continuous reevaluation process. Of course records checks are done, a felony arrest properly documented might pop up, and many agencies yearly run standard credit checks and conduct random drug tests. But overall, absent something self-reported or too obvious to ignore, a clearance rides for five years, sometimes literally with no questions asked. How could it be otherwise with over five million active cleared Americans strung across the globe?
It doesn’t always work out. As happened following the process’ failure with people like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, now with Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira, much noise will be generated about “doing something” to fix the clearance process. But what?
Dramatically increasing the number and scope of on-the-street investigations as part of background checks will spiral wildly into crazy expenses and even longer waiting periods to complete clearances. It could bring the hiring process to its knees, and spawn more and more “temporary clearances,” a self-defeating act. This all with no assurance of better results due to both limitations on the whole concept (past behavior in a wholly different environment like high school may not be indicative of future intent under real-world pressures, as in the Teixeira and Manning cases) or simply human judgment errors. If done properly, such changes might even catch a few of the Teixeira’s out there, but to be honest, there are few Teixeira’s out there to begin with and most of them will be sending up obvious danger signals at work for a long time if anyone would pay attention before a clearance review catches up.
In the interest of never letting a good crisis go to waste, the Biden Administration is now reportedly planning to increase its surveillance of social media and online chatrooms, as if not understanding the internet is a very big place. It is certain that many more in government will call for more aggressive “monitoring” of employees, having them sign away basically all of their civil rights in return for a job. The government will turn its vast intelligence gathering tools further inward and end up pointlessly compiling CIA officers’ credit card receipts from Applebee’s, the web browsing habits of diplomats’ children, and so forth. In truth, a lot of that is probably already going on now anyway (the CIA and other intel agencies have had for years robust counterintelligence operations designed specifically to spy on their own spies.) But you just can’t see into a person’s head, or his heart, via his bank account.
In addition to a huge waste of money and resources, these measures will inevitably lead to more mistrust and paranoia inside government. Lack of sharing (the CIA believes things it shares with State get leaked, the Army won’t give things away to the Navy, the FBI hoards info so as to not let another part of the Department of Justice get credit for a bust, the NSA doesn’t trust anyone, and so forth) is already an issue among agencies, and even inside of agencies, and helped pave the way for 9/11.
In addition, handing even more power to security teams will also not work well in the long run. Hyper-scrutiny will no doubt discourage more decent people from seeking government work, unwilling to throw their lives open for a job if they have prospects elsewhere. The Red Scare of the 1950s, and the less-known Lavender Scares, when labeling someone gay inside government would see him fired, show what happens when security holds too many cards. James Jesus Angleton’s paranoid mole hunting at CIA, which ruined many careers, is still a sore point at Langley. No, unleashing the bullies won’t help.
As a wise man once said, cut through all the lies and there it is, right in front of you. The only answer to the clearance problem is to simply require fewer cleared people inside government.
This will require the tsunami of document classification to be dammed. In FY2009 alone, 54 million U.S. Government documents were classified. Every one of those required cleared authors and editors, system administrators and database technicians, security personnel, and electronic repair persons. Even the cafeteria personnel who fed them lunch needed some sort of vetting.
With fewer people to clear because there is less classified material to begin with, always-limited resources can be better focused. Better background checks can be done. Corners need not be cut, and unqualified people would not be issued clearances out of necessity. Processing time would be reduced. Human judgment, always the weak link, could be applied more slowly and more deliberately, with more checks and balances involved.
More monitoring won’t help and will very likely hurt. In a challenge as inherently flawed as the clearance process, the only way forward is less, not more.
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