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Government contractors are struggling to make the U.S. more secure. It's not the enormity of task. They simply can't get security clearances for their employees. The Pentagon concedes that it has a huge backlog of more than 240,000 applications.

Without clearances, which can take at least six months, private-sector workers can't handle classified projects. That's slowing work on many government contracts. "Cleared personnel are in short supply," says Peter LaMontagne, a senior vice-president at ManTech International, which does background checks for the Pentagon.

GREEN LIGHTS NEEDED. Herndon (Va.)-based tech services supplier WAM!NET Government Services, for example, wants to expand its workforce from 500 to 750 to help fulfill a $7 billion contract from the Navy to design and operate a computer network. But employees need security clearances to get onto 100 bases around the world.

Company President Michael J. Barbee says he has 117 workers waiting for approval. One worker has been hoping for a green light for 16 months. And there's no end in sight, either, since security requests have been rising.

Note: This story originally appeared in the August 11, 2003 issue of BusinessWeek. By Paul Magnusson in Washington, D.C.

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