By Florence Olsen
Oct. 17, 2005
Delays in getting security clearances to satisfy critical staffing
needs frustrate many agency officials and federal contractors.
Although Congress enacted an intelligence reform law last year to help
reduce a backlog of security clearance applications, experienced field
investigators say the problems remain.
Some say the law's 90-day deadline for completing investigations was
never realistic, and agencies have been slow to comply with the law's
reciprocity provision, which requires them to accept one another's
security clearances. But businesses and agencies can prevent many
delays and find skilled technology employees with security clearances,
according to several investigative experts who spoke at a September
meeting of the Business Forum for HR Professionals in the Washington,
A security clearance can take as long as two years to process, said
Earl Gould, a special investigator under contract with the FBI. Gould
is president of the Association of Certified Background Investigators.
The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 mandates
that by Dec. 17, 2006, agencies must be able to complete 80 percent of
background investigations for security clearances within 90 days.
Gould said that time frame is unreasonable.
The law allows an additional 30 days for three independent
adjudicators to decide whether the field investigators' findings
justify granting a security clearance.
Although the new law requires all agencies to accept security
clearances completed by an authorized investigative or adjudicative
agency, few have rushed to comply, Gould said.
"It's just been recently that the CIA, National Security Agency and
FBI have agreed to accept each other's clearances," he said.
Other agencies have not embraced reciprocity. In 2004, background
investigations for most agencies became the Office of Personnel
Management's responsibility, but OPM has been slow to find ways to
eliminate the backlog and delays, Gould said.
He said agencies will eventually solve those problems. In the
meantime, however, he and other experts advise agencies and businesses
needing employees with clearances to avoid delays they can control.
One way to facilitate clearances is to hire a part-time or full-time
security clearance officer, said Roger Campbell, who worked at the CIA
for 25 years as an HR manager and director. He is now human capital
strategy director at Monster Government Solutions, which sells online
HR staffing services.
A security clearance officer would track applications as they are
processed. In addition, guidance from a knowledgeable professional
could help employees verify that all information submitted on a
clearance application is accurate and complete, which speeds the
process, Campbell said.
"Any hiccup at all takes your candidate from the front of the line to
the back of the line," he said.
Another way to avoid delays is to begin the recruiting and security
clearance processes early, Campbell said. "Build bench strength," he
said, by initiating the security clearance process or validating
existing security clearances before hiring people.
Campbell said a security clearance officer is invaluable to companies
and agencies that need to hire hundreds of employees to fill national
security and public trust positions. A clearance officer who knows the
right questions to ask could make the difference in whether a security
clearance investigation moves quickly or slowly.
Such officers, for example, know to ask if an employee was born in a
foreign country. To get a security clearance, a person must renounce
any foreign citizenship and produce a naturalization certificate from
Citizenship and Immigration Services, the former Immigration and
If applicants collect all that paperwork in advance, a field
investigator could save many hours, Gould said. "Trying to find a
naturalization certificate in INS is like trying to find Osama bin
Laden," he said. "Those people are really understaffed."
Sometimes the simplest way to maneuver around the processing backlog
is to hire an ex-military employee with an active security clearance,
said Carl Savino, president of Competitive Edge Services, a company
that finds jobs for military veterans. Nearly 250,000 people leave
active military duty each year, he said, and many of them have
Through several steps, agencies and businesses can avoid unnecessary
clearance delays. But Gould said agencies cannot control delays rooted
in OPM's HR culture. For its expanded role in conducting security
clearances, he said, the agency needs to replace its mentality with a
national security mind-set. "National security is not a human
An HR official, for example, cannot explore someone's marital status
during a hiring interview, whereas a security investigator "will
explore this area rather deeply in some cases," Gould said. "You would
not like the questions we ask," he said, addressing the audience of HR
But for security clearances, background investigators need to ask
personal questions, he said. "We have a lot more to lose if we screw
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