Efforts to streamline security clearances slowed, not halted by pandemic

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National security space companies are hiring. “As our space programs continue to grow, so does our need for talented employees,” Beth Pitts-Madonna, Northrop Grumman Space Systems sector vice president of human resources, said by email.

Northrop Grumman Space Systems has more than 3,100 jobs currently open, including more than 1,000 positions for employees with security clearances.

“Finding candidates with the appropriate technical skills and/or clearances can sometimes be difficult in the current market,” Caroline LeCount, Maxar’s talent management vice president, said by email. As a result, companies often hire employees with the right skills and help them obtain confidential, secret or top secret clearances.

For years, space industry executives bemoaned the amount of time employees waited for security clearance investigations to conclude. While that remains a concern, the process is not as time-consuming as it was before 2019 when the Office of Personnel Management transferred the National Background Investigation Bureau to the new Defense Counter-Intelligence and Security Agency (DCSA).

DCSA reports on the time it spends processing the fastest 90% of security clearance cases.

In January 2021, the average processing time for 90% of industry applicants for initial secret clearance investigations was 54 days. It was 83 days for initial top secret investigations, according to Security Clearance, Suitability/Fitness and Credentialing Reform, a report published in January by the Performance Accountability Council, a U.S. interagency panel focused on reforming the security process.

By comparison, the fastest 90% of initial background investigations took 77 days for secret clearance in 2019 and 157 days for top secret clearance. In addition, the backlog of security clearance cases, which peaked at 725,000 cases in April 2018, has dwindled to around 202,000 cases.

Still, the COVID-19 pandemic slowed some clearance investigations.

“For cleared roles supporting Maxar’s government services business, we have experienced longer wait times with government customers to grant individuals access to cleared facilities,” LeCount said.

Security experts would like to see wait times decline further and they have suggestions for easing the clearance process.

It’s not unusual, for example, for a classified government contract to stipulate that all the individuals who will be assigned to the contract possess top secret security clearances before work begins. As a result, companies without enough cleared staff available to take on the work are forced to hire individuals who possess the appropriate clearance from other companies or government agencies. That creates an additional vacancy.

“You’re just shuffling the deck chairs,” said a security expert who asked not to be identified.

If government contracts instead stipulated that individuals needed to possess the appropriate level of clearance before beginning to work on the contract, companies would have time to sponsor employees to obtain clearance.

“That would likely give industry greater flexibility to hire the best and the brightest, no matter what their status of clearances,” the security expert said.

Another security expert raised concerns about reciprocity. An employee cleared to work on a secret U.S. Space Force program, for example, needs government approval to contribute to a National Reconnaissance Office contract. In general, U.S. government agencies quickly approve the clearance decisions made by other agencies.

When they don’t, the process can drag on for weeks or months. In those cases, companies have no way of knowing the reason a decision is delayed.

“The most common reasons a person’s clearance is denied or revoked include (in no particular order): financial considerations, personal conduct, criminal conduct and drug involvement,” a DCSA spokesman said by email. “If an individual’s clearance is denied, he/she receives a Statement of Reasons that lists the factual basis for the security clearance denial or revocation. The statement highlights all security concerns, which allows the individual to formally respond.”

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 15, 2021 issue of SpaceNews magazine.