Security Clearance Process

Former DNI Director Says Clearance System is Broken

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who retired last January, stated in a recent interview posted on NextGov that “the clearance system we have is broke”. I am sure many of the current clearance holders and applicants would agree. Some of the issues Clapper identified have long been the bane of many applicants: long delays in completing investigations; lack of communication; archaic continuous evaluation processes; and obsolete data repository systems. The consequences resulting from the current process is the loss of prospective talent to fill critical cyber and intelligence positions because potential applicants don’t want to or can’t afford to wait for an undetermined amount of time to see if they will pass the clearance process.


One of the areas that has frustrated me personally in my career as a security professional is when unwanted baggage (people) are allowed to move from contract to contract or agency to agency because it is easier to let them become someone else’s problem rather than hold them accountable by documenting misconduct. Here is a prime example: A government employee repeatedly views porn at work, he is counseled multiple times, and finally a letter for proposed removal is drafted. Before it is officially issued, the HR or legal office offers the individual the opportunity to resign. Seeing the writing on the wall, the employee resigns and promptly applies for a contractor position working in support of that same agency. Because no official action was taken, there is nothing that prevents him from working on the contract. His last background investigation is still good because he separated within 24 months.


In the interview with Clapper he said “The government must ensure that its updated vetting system for security clearances is capable of tracking employees and contractors as the move from company to company, from contract to contract, and in and out of the federal government”. I agree wholeheartedly and think it should be taken one step further; apply it to all levels of investigation, not just clearance holders.


  1. well at least one person in a position of power (or formerly in such a position) is willing to admit this.

  2. While I agree with this the security clearance process is broken, Clapper is probably the worst person to cite to make a case here. Strike that. Second worst. After Comey.

    A book can be written on the main reasons for the process being broken, but I would say the biggest problem, the central and overarching problem, is the complete bureaucratization of the process. Atul Gawande, M.D., a noted Harvard Medical School professor and bestselling author, pointed out in his book “Checklist Manifesto” that in situations involving real-world complexity (e.g., security clearance investigations) workers need room to move and adapt. If not then the system will breakdown. All the planning and drills and operating procedures will become worthless and dysfunction will reign. In discussing the Hurricane Katrina disaster-- textbook example of the complete breakdown in coordination and functioning of federal, state, and local emergency management agencies-- Gawande had as interesting take on it:

    "“The lesson of this tale has been misunderstood. Some have argued that the episode proves that the private sector is better than the public sector in handling complex situations. But it isn’t… No, the real lesson is that under conditions of true complexity—where the knowledge required exceeds that of any individual and unpredictability reigns—efforts to dictate every step from the center will fail. People need room to act and adapt. Yet they cannot succeed as isolated individuals, either—that is anarchy. Instead, they require a seemingly contradictory mix of freedom and expectation—expectation to coordinate, for example, and also to measure progress toward common goals.
    This was the understanding people in the skyscraper-building industry had grasped. More remarkably, they had learned to codify that understanding into simple checklists. They had made the reliable management of complexity a routine.”

    Security clearance background investigations have become quintessentially ‘dictating every step from the center’. Exactly what Gawande says will inevitably lead to failure. But there are no live camera shots of people stranded on rooftops so there is no sense of urgency or willingness to change things. Except the movement toward greater and greater bureaucratic requirements.

    This job-- at least on the contractor side-- attracts men and women with extensive investigative backgrounds and experience. Or at least it used to. Former LEOs, S/As, et al. And during background investigations most of their time will be spent getting to the bottom of how a Subject could actually work full time employment concurrently with a part-time Army Reserve employment (and usually 6 years ago on a 5-year PR case). Or how Subject can go to school part time and work part time. Concurrently! And most of the attention of the investigator during the ESI is NOT spent bluffing and acting asking the Subject to scour his brain for any compromising aspects of their past life-- NB: bluffing and acting elicits the best derogatory information and stuff not found in records or known by friends-- but forcing the Subject to scour his brain for people that can cover certain time periods and employments and residences and who can tell the investigator what a “straightshooter and the most sterling character of anyone they know” the Subject is.

    Having former detectives, special agents, investigators, et al., doing the investigative work of security clearance investigations within the confines of the extremely bureaucratic process is like having experienced and talented artists creating art with only an Etch A Sketch. (RZ…IHB memo 4.2.7-43 “OPM requires the use of at least three straight lines that cross over when drawing a…”).

  3. I agree with RZzzz that Mr. Clapper is hardly one to critique a system that he had control over for many years. I have also been involved in the DoD Personnel Security System for many years, on the ground, as an applicant, adjudicator, security manager and Facility Security Officer. The system is extremely damaged, if not actually broken. The example cited by Mr. Clapper could very well be true and is a prime example of the damage. The people overseeing this civilian employee did not do their due diligence. The individual’s records in JPAS and/or Scattered Castles (SC) should have been flagged for his conduct and he would never have gotten back into a cleared contractor position or any agency. Additionally, most if not all Government contracts require the Contracting Officer’s Rep (COR) approve all personnel assigned to the contract. It would be TOO easy for the COR to eliminate this individual based on knowledge of his conduct, providing the security office kept appropriate records and annotated JPAS and SC as they should have…

  4. But that would require people to actually do work…

  5. Perhaps the biggest factor now in making the whole process a complete joke and waste of money is the investigations are largely being done by people making ~$12/hour (after costs of using your own vehicle, off-the-clock work, etc.). A talked with a federal agent last week who was horrified by the contractor investigator who recently interviewed him. A young kid with no work experience and no investigative/interviewing experience. I know another federal law enforcement buddy of mine who quit after a month of harassment and threats about ACDs and production. Read some recent reviews of Keypoint at Glassdoor. It’s a sh*t show and any “investigation” product is utterly worthless. I would have more faith in a cursory online investigation of a person.

  6. I completely agree. The aside from asking the obvious “5 W’s” the IR guides provide a framework to create a baseline of questions to satisfy adjudicative requirements. I know that many of us have simply resorted to asking “just the facts” and sticking to the script of the IR guides only because when we actually use our minds and ask questions outside of the box that we lend ourselves vulnerable to attack from Review. “Opening a door” as my first FTO used to call it. On the other side of the token we have Reviewers that are merely curious about a situation and are hitting us with an RZ because we didn’t ask something seemingly irrelevant. It’s creating a total lack of consistency among Review requirements to have a ROI go through on first pass. Definitely noticeable with newer Reviewers who are incorrectly RZ-ing ROI’s for a public trust case because we didn’t ask questions we would only ask on secret or TS case types. You’re better off just asking the full spectrum of questions regardless of case types to avoid the RZ.

  7. “You’re better off just asking the full spectrum of questions regardless of case types to avoid the RZ.”
    And what a prime example of time, talent, and resources wasted in order to avoid the inexcusable harassment that inevitably follows. I don’t condone it, but I do understand it. And then it leads to this: Investigators taking the path of least resistance. In one brief example we see two of the many toxins undermining the present system that will keep it ‘broken’ unless systematic reform is undertaken. At its core are issues of personal integrity and pressures attendant to making a living. I know many fine investigators, like MagnumPII, who are facing ridiculous obstacles that lead to rationalizing motives and methods in order to meet questionable ‘standards’ and metrics. Meantime, the whole enterprise suffers.