Modernizing Security Clearance Renewal

filling out paperwork

U.S. intelligence agencies are considered to be among the most advanced centers of technology and data, but some of their bureaucratic systems may be considered antiquated and out of touch. A recent Washington Post article reports that reforming the clearance renewal process could save time, money, and provide tighter security overall.

The Post article focuses on John Hamre, who has had security clearances since 1986 and has undergone six background investigations, and during this time he's noticed redundancies and excesses in the process. Hamre has an electronic record, called an SF-86, used during background investigations, but despite it being in an electronic system for five years, his latest renewal process asked him to create a new one. While using the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) website in the renewal process should be convenient and swift, his experience shed light on redundancy and oversight.

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Part of filling out the SF-86 form is listing all foreign travel undertaken in the previous seven years, and Hamre was surprised to find none of that information was covered in the electronic application. Hamre "travels extensively for business and routinely meets senior government officials. Each time, [he] files a trip report because of [his] clearances." Rather than include the detailed record of his travel to other countries, which had been created over seven years, the electronic SF-86 form ignored relevant information already in the possession of the U.S. government.

The last leg of the process involved a government worker approaching him and asking questions about everything Hamre had written on the SF-86. She started from square one by asking about his addresses and date of birth. Hamre informed her that he swore everything was true, and that he didn't mind skipping the entire process and letting them sue him for perjury if they discovered any inconsistencies. Hamre muses, "To grant a top-secret clearance in the United States, we ask a potential spy to fill out a form, which is given to an employee, possibly a contract worker, who then asks the candidate to verbally confirm what he has written. Unbelievable."

Hamre claims that his friends in U.S. intelligence told him $1 billion is spent on background investigations, and implies that the cost could be reduced if agencies didn't use a system that was "designed in the 1950s." Not only is there a high monetary cost, but spies have been caught who passed polygraph tests and even withstood the questioning current background investigations use. He claims that modern technological innovation has provided commercial data sources that can verify identities quickly, accurately, and cheaply. "We can improve security and save money simultaneously. But our country needs a system built for the 21st century. The current system is pathetic."

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