Security clearance points to problems with access to secrets

WASHINGTON (AP) – A government backlog of 700,000 security clearance reviews has led agencies like the Defence Department to inadvertently issue interim passes to criminals – even rapists and killers – prompting calls for better and faster vetting of people with access to the nation’s secrets.

The government-wide pileup, is causing work delays for both federal and private intelligence efforts. It takes about four months to acquire a clearance to gain access to “secret” information on a need-to-know basis, and nine to 10 months for “top-secret” clearance.

Efforts to reduce the backlog coincide with pressure to tighten the reins on classified material. In recent years, intelligence agencies have suffered some of the worst leaks of classified information in US history. Still, calls for a faster clearance process are getting louder.

“If we don’t do interim clearances, nothing gets done,” Dan Payne, Director of the US Defence Security Service, said last week at an intelligence conference.

Yet Payne described handing out interim clearances as risky business. On the basis of partial background checks, people are being given access to secret and top-secret information sometimes for long periods of time, he said.

Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner, listens during a committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. – AP

“I’ve got murderers who have access to classified information,” he said.

“I have rapists. I have paedophiles. I have people involved in child porn. I have all these things at the interim clearance level and I’m pulling their clearances on a weekly basis. We are giving those people access to classified information with only the minimum amount of investigation. This is why we have to fix this process. This is why we have to drive these timelines down.”

Payne didn’t say how many criminals his agency has discovered, if their offences were new or old, or if any of them had mishandled classified material.

Sen Mark Warner of Virginia, the Senate intelligence committee’s top Democrat, said an overhaul of the clearance system is long overdue, particularly if the government hopes to continue to attract top-notch workers and recent graduates.

The backlog is complicating transitions of mid-career intelligence professionals from agency to agency and in and out of private industry. It takes time to process clearances for these transfers, too.

Over the years, various executive orders and legislation have called for change – none successfully.