Editorial Board

Speed Up the Security Clearance System

Jared Kushner isn't the only one in limbo.

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Photograph: Yuri Gripas/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Whether Jared Kushner regains his top-secret security clearance is ultimately a decision for his father-in-law, President Donald Trump. That Kushner's status remains in limbo, like that of scores of his White House colleagues, speaks to the dysfunction of the security-clearance system itself.

It’s useful to distinguish Kushner’s case from the systemic problem. Considering the sheer delinquency of his application for a clearance, it's not surprising that Kushner still hasn't received one: His original filing contained at least 100 errors or omissions that he later corrected. Kushner's habit of taking undisclosed meetings with foreign governments have added to doubts about his trustworthiness. 

Though Kushner was given an interim clearance at the start of the administration, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has barred all aides without permanent clearances from continuing to handle top-secret material. At least 30 administration officials have had their clearances downgraded, including Kushner, but none have lost their jobs. That’s appropriate, though it also illustrates how nepotism complicates good management.

And better management -- in the rest of the federal government -- is precisely what’s needed to reduce the backlog of more than 700,000 security-clearance applications, up from 570,000 in 2016. The wait for a top-secret security clearance averages 18 months, even if it's just to renew an existing clearance. Each day, the U.S. falls further behind: a Government Accountability Office investigation found that only 2 percent of federal agencies are meeting government targets for processing security-clearance applications.

While a limited number of senior officials, like Kushner, are permitted to work with interim clearances, the overwhelming majority of prospective federal employees and contractors aren't. This is a big reason why important national-security jobs remain unfilled.

It would be one thing if there were any evidence that lengthy background investigations actually weed out large numbers of potential leakers. But fewer than 1 percent of applicants are denied security clearances -- which suggests that the process could be streamlined without putting state secrets at risk.

bill in Congress would require the National Background Investigations Bureau, which oversees security clearances, to submit quarterly reports on the size of clearance backlogs and average wait times. That would at least allow the public to gauge progress.

Going forward, the government should renew active security clearances through continuous evaluations, rather than full background investigations. It should also exempt workers with clearances from being re-investigated if they switch jobs. Finally, agencies should identify jobs, especially entry-level positions and internships, that shouldn't require security clearances in the first place.

A single security breach can do significant harm, so the vetting process itself needs to remain rigorous. But there are ways to make the overall system more efficient. The alternative is a government, no matter who’s in charge, that is less informed and effective than it should be.

    --Editors: Romesh Ratnesar, Michael Newman.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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