"I have determined that … significant opportunities to improve these processes," writes Bush in a memo to agency heads, calling for "aggressive efforts to achieve meaningful and lasting reform."
The new directive is the latest effort by the White House to address a problem that has plagued successive administrations, but which has been especially severe since the huge expansion of U.S. intelligence agencies and contractors following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
"Long-standing practices used in the security processing of individuals and contractors to work for the Government pose challenges to the speed with which these individuals can begin their work or move from one role to another," reads the memo.
The length of time it takes for the background investigation and security adjudication needed for a clearance are the stuff of Beltway legend and have led military and intelligence contractors in the Washington region to offer large bonuses to recruit and retain employees that already have them.
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which has charge of investigations for security clearances, says that processing from start to finish now takes less than 120 days in most cases.
Bush's memo, issued last week, puts the Office of Management and Budget in charge of drafting "a comprehensive reform proposal" by April. The OMB and OPM directors are to work with the national security adviser, the director of national intelligence and the secretary of defense.
They are to produce "proposed executive and legislative actions to achieve the goals of reform … followed promptly by any additional proposals this group believes necessary to fulfill its mission."
Lawmakers on the House Government Reform Committee, which has held hearings on the issue, said they were hopeful about the new initiative.
"The president's memo fully puts the weight of the White House behind the … reform effort," said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., the committee's ranking Republican, noting that it had already been "under way for some time."
"Someone (the OMB director) is in charge now of what was an unusually collaborative but still leaderless inter-agency team," Davis said in a statement.
The president's memo directs development of common standards for investigations and recordkeeping so that information can quickly be shared across the federal government and can be used for multiple purposes, such as the background checks or "suitability investigations" done on all federal hires and the much more detailed investigations done for security clearances.
But congressional officials say there is concern in some quarters of U.S. intelligence about that sort of efficiency.
The recent case of a woman who was granted a secret clearance, first by the FBI and then by the CIA, and later turned out to have fraudulently naturalized herself by means of a bogus marriage, is one that skeptical counterintelligence veterans point to as an illustration of the problem.
The CIA said it relied on the work of FBI investigators who had checked out her naturalization. The FBI said they had interviewed her by her ex-husband and not picked up any suspicions about a bogus marriage.
"That is the hard case," acknowledged a congressional staffer who has long monitored the reform effort. "The hope is that (with) uniform and consistent and good investigative standards you would pick that (kind of thing) up."
"The trick is not to dumb (the standards) down," said the staffer, adding that there had been "some resistance" to the idea of reform, which was reflected in the memo.
On one hand, the staffer pointed out, it calls for "recommendations … to align or otherwise alter policies and procedures to ensure the effective, efficient, and timely investigation and adjudication of security clearances and suitability for employment."
Yet the memo also says that the reforms should avoid "altering the distinct lines of authority for establishing policies and procedures relating to security clearance, Federal employment suitability, and related determinations."
"It is a little schizophrenic," concluded the staffer.
Davis, anticipating possible bureaucratic resistance, said it would "take a bold, transformative approach to break through the stovepipes and mountains of paper that clog current clearance systems."
"I hope the White House and OMB won't be shy about recommending changes," he urged.
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