February 13, 2008

Security Clearances

Okay, so according to recent congressional testimony by the current Director of National Intelligence, we know these two things about U.S. government workers who spy on the United States for foreign countries:

1. They are usually motivated by money or financial hardship.

2. They are usually not spies when they enter government service.

So if you think about it, we should be screening people after they join the government as much as we do upon initial entry. (And we should pay close attention to their finances.) Instead, we have things back-asswards. The result is that the CIA, the DIA, the FBI, and every other agency in the alphabet soup has a backlog years long, with smart and capable applicants already hired but waiting on a never-ending screening process to be completed. Oh, and have you traveled a lot abroad? Do you have lots of friends in foreign countries? Have you lived in exotic places like Tel Aviv and Beijing and Dakkar where you learned useful foreign languages? Well %$#@ you, because you are never getting cleared. Yes, it makes sense that you would be exactly the kind of person the U.S. government should hire. But you are not the kind of person the U.S. government can clear.

President Bush is finally getting around to doing something about this colossal golf foxtrot, and not a moment too soon. Shaun Waterman has the scoop for UPI:

WASHINGTON, Feb. 12 (UPI) -- President Bush wants a plan from his top officials for a complete overhaul of the way the U.S. government does background checks and grants security clearances for employees and contractors who need access to classified information.

"I have determined that … significant opportunities to improve these processes," writes Bush in a memo to agency heads, calling for "aggressive efforts to achieve meaningful and lasting reform."

The new directive is the latest effort by the White House to address a problem that has plagued successive administrations, but which has been especially severe since the huge expansion of U.S. intelligence agencies and contractors following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

"Long-standing practices used in the security processing of individuals and contractors to work for the Government pose challenges to the speed with which these individuals can begin their work or move from one role to another," reads the memo.

The length of time it takes for the background investigation and security adjudication needed for a clearance are the stuff of Beltway legend and have led military and intelligence contractors in the Washington region to offer large bonuses to recruit and retain employees that already have them.