- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The backlog of more than a half million security-clearance investigations on potential federal employees or contractors “threatens national security,” officials say, and new measures announced this week are only a step toward solving the problem.

Congressional investigators said about 258,000 would-be contractors or employers with the Department of Defense and an additional 224,000 with civilian agencies are waiting for background investigations to be completed, and thousands more are waiting for final adjudication of completed investigations.

“My frustration is, we’re a nation at war,” said William Leonard, who runs the National Industrial Security Program. “How quickly people can get through that [clearance] process affects our ability to wage that war. This backlog is just unacceptable.”

The Pentagon announced on Monday a long-awaited step designed to help clear the backlog. As part of a long-term plan to centralize and streamline the clearance process, it transferred responsibility for running investigations to the Office of Personnel Management.

David Marin, deputy staff director of the House Government Reform Committee, which held hearings on the issue over the summer, said the move was “better late than never.”

“This backlog threatens national security by limiting the availability of otherwise qualified personnel,” he said.

Last year, committee investigators found, the average clearance took 375 days — more than a year — to complete, largely because of the size of the backlog.

And a major reason for the backlog, Mr. Marin said, is that different federal agencies generally do not recognize each other’s clearances.

“Each agency has its own standards for investigations and its own guidelines for how to adjudicate what those investigations find,” Mr. Leonard said.

Although the standards for an investigation are pretty cut and dried, he said the guidelines for adjudication are “more subjective. How [the same applicant’s] situation is viewed can vary from agency to agency.”

This means that a contractor or employee who wants to move from one agency to another, or even from one part of one agency to another, might have to undergo a whole new investigation — even if the new post requires the same level of clearance that they already have.

“If the new clearance is at a higher level, then a new investigation is reasonable,” Mr. Marin said. But if the position were requires the same level of clearance, he said, “Those agencies need to get over themselves.”

Mr. Marin said that House Government Reform Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, had drafted legislation to centralize the investigation process. That language found its way into the now stalled intelligence-reform bill.

“If the intel bill doesn’t make it,” Mr. Marin said, “we’ll reintroduce the language as a stand-alone bill. This has got to be done.”

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