Over the last decade, the government has fought tooth and nail — largely successfully — to speed up the security clearance process and encourage intelligence agencies to share more information with one another.
But as Washington reels from the recent bombshell revelations on the National Security Agency’s surveillance efforts brought to light by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, experts fear the government will overreact and reverse those hard-won victories.
“This town tends to swing like a pendulum,” said Steven Bucci, director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation. “It reacts to the news of the day. I’m hoping we don’t suddenly have a flurry of legislation that limits how [security clearances are] done.”
No proposals to limit information-sharing or to clamp down on security clearances have yet surfaced since Snowden leaked to the media extensive details about NSA surveillance programs that collect private online communications from companies such as Microsoft, Facebook and Google and phone records and metadata from Verizon.
But Bucci and Tom Fingar, the former deputy director of national intelligence for analysis, say such misguided efforts could be coming — either from Congress or the Obama administration — and would do little to improve security.
“My concern is, to fix a nonexistent or limited-in-scope problem, there will be draconian efforts to roll back progress made on sharing information among a very small subset of analysts,” Fingar said.
Before Congress passed the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which ordered the government to fix the security clearance process, hundreds of thousands of federal employees, service members and government contractors waited months for their background checks and security clearances.
But after a mammoth streamlining effort, the Government Accountability Office removed the Defense Department’s security clearance process from its list of high-risk programs in 2011. Last year, the Office of Personnel Management reported the government’s backlog was gone, and it was processing checks in 39 days — one fewer than the 2004 law required.
Gregg Prillaman, a consultant who previously served as chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security, said obtaining a security clearance in a post-Snowden world will likely be much tougher and take longer.
“There will probably be fewer contractors overall [with clearances], and those contractors they do have will probably have more polygraphs,” Prillaman said. “There are thousands and thousands of contractors out there who have clearances, who work for the intelligence community. [The Office of the Director of National Intelligence] and other agencies are now going to rethink the restrictions on contractors and obviously increase them.”
The biggest changes could come for the highest level of security clearance: top secret with sensitive compartmented information, or TS/SCI, clearances.
Not all such clearances require polygraphs. But Bucci said the government may require more TS/SCI clearances to have polygraphs, or it could decide to conduct more in-depth polygraphs — possibly inquiring about a candidate’s thoughts on data security or leaks such as Snowden’s.
Bucci also said the government could add more psychological testing to the security clearance process.
Another possible casualty could be the so-called reciprocity of security clearances, or agencies’ willingness to accept clearances granted by other agencies, creating even more work.
The end result, Prillaman said, could be the return of the backlog that plagued the government for years.
The intelligence community’s progress on improving information-sharing and collaboration also could suffer. Agencies used to loathe sharing information with one another, due to mistrust and competitiveness. But that lack of information sharing kept government agencies from “connecting the dots” that could have pointed to the 9/11 plot, and so the government focused on breaking down those so-called “silos.”
The intelligence community, for example, created an online Library of National Intelligence and a Wikipedia-type program called Intellipedia to encourage collaboration.
But experts worry that agencies could start to withhold information from one another if they suspect someone like Snowden could leak information.
“Those online libraries are going to be pretty heavily scrutinized and curtailed,” Prillaman said. “In the old days, it used to be you had a highly classified document stamped ‘TS’ with a bright banner, and you would literally walk office-to-office with it in a sealed envelope, [show it to someone,] seal it back up and walk to the next office. When it gets online, it’s much harder to control.”
“If it results in, ‘We have to stop having so much information-sharing among analysts, or between analysts and the policy people we support,’ what’s the point?” Fingar said. “Why collect and analyze information if we don’t share it with the policy guys who can benefit?”