AP Photo/Evan Vucci

State Department Has No Idea What It Costs to Give Security Clearances

Despite orders from Congress last year, Foggy Bottom can't say what clearances cost or how long they take.

The State Department’s inspector general recently released an evaluation of the department’s security clearance process. The verdict? Officials can only loosely estimate the time it takes to process clearances, and they don’t track the costs.

State has been reporting its processing times to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and is one of seven intelligence agencies required to do so by the 2010 Intelligence Authorization Act. But the IG’s audit of those reports “identified a number of errors, making it impossible for [the Office of Inspector General] to determine the actual amount of time it takes to process clearances at the department.”

The report also found that State hasn’t analyzed how much it spends on investigations. Despite being required by law to ensure security clearances are processed in a “cost-effective manner” and report these costs to the ODNI, the department currently has no analysis, and gathers no information on the costs related to its security clearance program.

The OIG report began in September 2016, and was specifically meant to address the accuracy of the data the Department was submitting to ODNI, the extent of security clearance processing delays, and the costs associated with the security clearance process.

The OIG report found that between 2012 and 2016, State conducted over 63,000 Secret and Top Secret clearance investigations, and 2,700 reciprocity requests. The State Department is one of a few agencies that maintains its own personnel security program. Its investigators also work overseas, providing investigative support to other federal agencies.

Faulty Estimates

State estimated several key aspects of the processing times data it passed along to ODNI, the report found. Rather than determining the actual time for the “initiation” phase of the security clearance process, the department estimated the initiation phase to be 22 days for all applications, while HR officials stated the initiation phase may take as long as 8 weeks.

In addition, the IG found that in fiscal 2015, department officials reported to ODNI that the amount of time it took to process a security clearance from initiation to adjudication was just 2 days, completely omitting their own low-ball initiation phase estimate of 22 days. State told the IG that the individual who prepared the reports from 2012-2015 was no longer with the agency, so they had no way of determining where those figures had come from, or why initiation was left off.

For processing times, the department used two systems of record: one for overall case management and another primarily for field officers. The IG found the records were inconsistent, with different times displayed in each system of record.

An Influx of Interns

One impediment to State’s security clearance processing times? Student interns. The Department hires a high volume of student interns, processing security clearances for both the primary intern and an alternate, in case the top candidate is unable to get the clearance or ends up turning down the position. Because intern security clearances must be processed more quickly, they push other investigations back. And investigations end up being adjudicated for interns who never report for duty. From just the spring of 2015 to the fall of 2016, 1,191 Secret Clearances and 46 Top Secret clearances were granted for interns who never reported to work. Only 65 percent of intern candidates who receive clearances join the department, and those individuals only serve for 10 weeks.

Among other things, the IG recommended that State perform a workforce analysis of cleared personnel, conduct cost estimates, and improve processing time data to ensure it is consistent and accurate.