Defense Security Chief Vows to End Clearance Backlog
By Paul Stone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 2, 2000 Charles Cunningham is the first to acknowledge his goal is daunting, but the head of the Defense Security Service is determined to clear up a backlog of 505,000 background checks for both military and civilian personnel.
Cunningham has pledged to get all investigations up to date by the end of 2001. The goal, he said, is complicated by the fact that clearing the backlog means DSS also must keep up with the approximately 400,000 new background checks it routinely processes annually.
Most of the backlogged cases are not new requests, but reinvestigations of DoD personnel who received clearances in the past. All clearances are supposed to be reviewed every five to 15 years, depending on the security level.
Cunningham, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who took over as security service chief last summer, said several factors produced the backlog. First, requirements for updating secret and confidential clearances were tightened after 1997, which meant DSS was suddenly faced with reinvestigations that previously wouldn't have been due for several years.
In addition, like most DoD agencies throughout the 1990s, DSS downsized -- it shrank about 40 percent, Cunningham pointed out.
A $100 million computer system installed in 1998 was expected to help alleviate some of the backlog, but it simply did not work. Cunningham cited problems with proper testing, inadequate design and lack of expertise within DSS to manage the information technology. He said the Air Force is now helping in the information technology area by providing a program management office that coordinates all contractors who work on DSS systems.
While the backlog is not scheduled to be completely cleared up until the end of 2001, DSS in the meantime is developing a computer program to sort through personnel questionnaires and to select high-risk cases for immediate investigation or review.
“We have a random sampling technique that tells us where problems exist, and we will go to those problem areas in a priority fashion,” Cunningham said. “So service members should not be discouraged that we have a backlog and somehow all of a sudden our security is jeopardized. It is not.”
He emphasized that DSS now has management plans in place not only to catch up with the current backlog and workload, but to prevent future backlogs. One option being considered is use of private contractors to help conduct investigations.
“As we look forward, we see that we can go to the private sector as long as we keep certain key elements important to the government in the government,” such as investigation standards and quality management, Cunningham said.
While DSS concentrates on clearing up the backlog, the director said, service members and civilian employees can do their part by ensuring all papers submitted for clearances are accurate and up to date.
“For example, there’s the Electronic Personnel Security Questionnaire, and it is extremely important. If you’re doing one, please do it carefully,” he advised. “We need to have good information to initiate an investigation.”
He also asks that those awaiting clearances be patient.
“This is not like a hurdle,” he said in reference to clearing the backlog. “It’s more like climbing a mountain.
“To be constantly asking about the status of your clearance is not going to be helpful,” he cautioned. “In fact, it will cause the same people who would otherwise be working on clearances to be answering questions. We are fixing the problems and have the techniques to continue to protect our security. So please be patient and don’t be discouraged.”