March 1, 2018

TSC IntelBrief: Security Clearances in 2018 

 Jared Kushner and  President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File).
  • On February 27, it was reported that Jared Kushner’s interim Top Secret clearance had been downgraded.
  • Interim clearances are not intended as workarounds for full adjudicated clearances and usually last less than 3 months.
  • Even for complicated background investigations, such as the one for the President’s son-in-law, a year-plus interim clearance for senior personnel is unusual.
  • By examining financial holdings and debt, as well as foreign travel, the background investigation seeks to uncover vulnerabilities to blackmail and improper foreign influence.

The process of obtaining a security clearance for the United States government is at times laborious and frustrating. That is the case partly by design and partly by a combination of bureaucratic infighting and a massive increase of positions needing clearances since 2001. The number of clearances is staggering; the Office of the Director of National Intelligence reported in October 2015 that 4.3 million people possessed some level of a classified clearance—from ‘confidential’ to ‘top secret.’ According to that same report, 1.4 million people held ‘top secret’ clearances.

Effectively processing that many clearances is an overwhelming task, one that is performed by a mix of private firms and government offices, often staffed with private firm contractors themselves. The recent history of background investigations and security clearances is one of highly-publicized calls for reform in the wake of periodic and damaging leaks and crimes—ranging from Edward Snowden to Reality Winners—new legislation, and even the creation of a new agency to streamline what has become an impossibly unwieldy process. Yet even the creation of the National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB) in September 2016 with the amending of Executive Order 13467 has failed to fully address bureaucratic infighting between various departments such as the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the Defense Security Service (DSS), and the NBIB.

The government has tried to set start-to-finish goals of 114 days for a ‘Top Secret’ clearance under the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act (IRTPA) and has failed to come close to that timeframe. Numbers released by the NBIB showed that as of the last quarter of 2017, it took an average of 501 days to process a Top Secret clearance. The process for granting a clearance is divided into three stages: application, investigation, and adjudication, with the investigation portion by far the longest.

The problems extend beyond how long it takes to process a clearance and go into protecting the extremely detailed information on clearance applicants, obtained through the lengthy SF-86 clearance form and other means. The 2015 ‘hack’ of the OPM database revealed the personal details of over 21 million people, going back 30 years. This information included social security numbers, bank accounts, foreign contacts and travel, and even fingerprints. It was the OPM hack that led to the reforms that created the NBIB.

Recent reporting shows the Trump Administration is having an issue with clearances, with dozens of people still on ‘interim’ clearances more than a year into their positions. While the wait times overall for obtaining a Top Secret clearance are very long, senior White House personnel are usually a priority given their duties and access to highly classified information, including Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI). In the case of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, he amended his SF-86 numerous times to account for omitted financial holdings and foreign contacts. Just one or two omissions in the very structured process for TS/SCI would normally result in a denied clearance.

It remains to be seen how the continued use of interim clearances will work given the new orders by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly in the wake of the scandal involving a White House official having obtained a clearance despite a documented history of abuse against women. In his February 16, 2018, order, Chief of Staff Kelly stated the White House would ‘discontinue all top secret interim clearances for anyone whose investigation or adjudication process has been underway since June or earlier.’ The deadline for this order is March 2 and appears to be having some effect; Kushner and other White House staff members reportedly had their clearances downgraded on February 27.


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