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about security clearances
“Most agencies make little effort to disseminate any information regarding the personnel security process to applicants, contractors, and employees subject to investigation or reinvestigation. These individuals thus remain largely uninformed with respect to basic, unclassified information concerning the overall process, the length of time it takes, the standards applied, and their own status . . . . In addition, those subjected to the clearance process often do not understand it. Some assume, for example, that they will be denied a clearance for reasons that are not actually grounds for rejection.”

Report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government
Secrecy (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1997)

The lack of knowledge, even among those who already possess security clearances and many who are responsible for processing security clearances, is appalling.

There are about 4.2 million people who hold security clearances granted by the Federal government. Almost 3.5 million of these individuals are affiliated with the Department of Defense (DoD civilian, military and contractor personnel). The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) conducts 90 percent of all federal background investigations. For fiscal year 2006 (October 2005 through September 2006), OPM anticipated over 550,000 requests for security clearance investigations and about 850,000 requests for other government background investigations. In fact they received about 1.8 million requests for background investigations during that period.

Today there are four investigative organizations working for OPM—one federal workforce and three contractor workforces. As of October 1, 2007 OPM charged their customers (including DoD) the following amounts for security clearance investigations:

INVESTIGATION TYPE Priority HandlingStandard Service
National Agency Check with Law and Credit $252$202
Access National Agency Check and Inquiries $273


Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI) $4,077 $3,711
Periodic Reinvestigation for SSBI $2,744 $2,509

Just for security clearance investigations this totals to about $700,000,000. But the real cost of security clearances includes the cost of the investigations, the cost of adjudication, and the cost of lost productivity due to the length of time it takes to obtain a security clearance. The cost of lost productivity may be ten times greater than the cost of the investigations.

Kathy Dillaman, Associate Director of the Federal Investigative Services Division of OPM, reported that in May 2006 average OPM processing time for investigations completed for Top Secret clearances was 151 days. A September 2006 General Accountability Office (GAO) report took issue with this figure, indicating that OPM did not include such things as front end processing time and time spent printing and forwarding the cases to the appropriate adjudication facilities. GAO also indicated that OPM sends cases to the adjudication facilities in a “closed pending” status where the investigation is not really completed.

The amount of time spent on the investigation is not the primary concern of most applicants and employers. What is important is the amount of time it takes to get the clearance. GAO computed the total time for initial Top Secret security clearances issued to DoD contractor personnel in January and February 2006 as an average of 446 days (545 days for reinvestigations for TS clearances). GAO attributed 286 of the 446 days to OPM’s investigative time without adding in even a portion of the front end processing time of 111 days or the printing and shipping time. It is possible that the clearances for DoD civilian employees and military personnel take less time.

In their Feb 07 report to Congress, the Security Clearance Oversight Group cited OPM data indicating that all investigations closed after 1 Oct 06 took an average of 166 plus an additional 39 days for adjudication. In its testimony before Congress in May 07, GAO again took issue with these numbers and reiterated that OPM did not account for the significant pre-investigation application processing time. Additionally, OPM has emphasized closing cases opened after 1 Oct 06, thus further confusing the actual amount of time involved in clearance processing.

There is no question that OPM is making significant progress in reducing the time it takes to conduct a security clearance investigation. Since 2005 they have increased the number of field investigators from about 4,800 to 7,500. But the quality of the investigations have suffered, due to the large number of new investigators and the "for profit" nature of the private companies that supply investigative services to OPM. At the moment, user agencies (security clearance adjudicative facilities) rarely return deficient investigations to OPM for additional work, because it would mean further delays in reaching a clearance decision. Once OPM begins to provide timely investigations, this will change. And this change will cause OPM to lose ground in its efforts to meet the Title III requirements of the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act.

If applicants for government security clearances spent as much time learning about the process as the average consumer spends gathering information prior to buying a car or major appliance, the turnaround time for security clearances could be decrease by as much as 20 percent. Of course, this decrease would only occur, if they properly applied their newly acquired knowledge to the EPSQ or eQIP (electronic security clearance application forms). Any significant improvement in the way applicants complete these forms would dramatically affect the turnaround time of field investigations by enabling field investigators to spend less time and effort on each case. Even a 15 percent reduction in the amount of work per case could result in investigative turnaround time being reduced 50 to 70 percent over a period of one year, if the number of investigators is not reduced. Reducing investigative turnaround time in the field below 75 days may not be practical, because investigators would lose flexibility in managing their caseload by having to focus too much on suspense dates.

If only a small percentage of applicants arm themselves with the necessary information on security clearance processing and apply that information, they could reduce their clearance processing time by weeks, even months.
For detailed information regarding investigations, clearances, and access, see Chapter 1 of Security Clearance Manual: How to Reduce the Time it Takes to Get Your Government Clearance.