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The Brief History of the Security Clearance Process

The history is fairly long and complicated. However, certain specific events give an understanding of how the security clearance process has evolved since 1972, and the difficulties the US Government has faced.

Federal security clearance processing does not exist within a single monolithic structure with one agency conducting investigations and one agency making clearance decisions. There are dozens of agencies that process clearances, and all agencies use the same basic procedures and standards for granting or denying clearances. Most agencies use the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) as their Investigation Service Provider (ISP), but some agencies have authority to use other ISPs or their own internal investigative personnel. Consequently, there are differences in the time it takes to complete a security clearance.

About 85% of all Personnel Security Investigations (PSIs) are conducted on DoD personnel (federal employees, military, and contractors). The next largest are DHS (including its component agencies) at about 3% and DoE at about 1.2%. Each of the other agencies processes only a fraction of 1% of the more than 650,000 PSIs conducted each year for security clearances. Because the DoD personnel security program dwarfs the combined size of all other federal agency programs, it’s necessary to focus on DoD when discussing security clearance processing.

In 1972 the responsibility for Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and DoD contractor security clearance investigations was transferred to the newly created Defense Investigative Service (DIS). However, security clearance adjudications continued to be performed in several thousand locations across DoD, and there were significant inconsistencies in adjudicative decisions. DoD eventually consolidated these offices into 18 DoD Central Adjudication Facilities (CAFs). This was later reduced to 9 DoD CAFs. In December 1979 DoD Regulation 5200.2-R, Personnel Security Program, was issued, and for the first time, most of the elements of personnel security were standardized throughout DoD. In 1981 the first formal Adjudicative Guidelines were established and incorporated into DoD 5200.2-R.

The creation of DIS eliminated redundancy, centralized control of PSIs, and provided greater economy of scale for DoD. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) also conducted PSIs for the federal Government, and together they conducted about 98% of all PSIs.

Throughout most of its history DIS was severely understaffed. Delays for initial clearances cost the Government $920 million a year in lost productivity. Eventually DIS grew from about 800 field investigators to 2,500 investigators. In 1996 most of OPM’s PSI function was privatized and contracted out to the US Investigative Service (USIS), which was created by former OPM investigators under an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, but later sold to private investors. Also during the 1990’s DIS changed its name to the Defense Security Service (DSS) and experienced a 50% reduction in the number of their field investigators in anticipation of a “Peace Dividend” that never materialized. New investigative standards implemented in the 1990’s, further increased the investigative backlog. When periodic reinvestigations became an unfunded requirement for Secret clearance in 1998, it immediately created a backlog of 400,000 overdue cases.

DSS began shifting some of its PSIs to OPM as early as 2000. In 2004 Congress passed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA), directing that (to the extent possible) all PSIs be conducted by one investigative agency. DSS transferred its investigative staff to OPM, and after the transfer OPM had a combined investigative staff of 4,200 government and contractor personnel. OPM estimated that about 8,000 were needed. The average turnaround time for an SSBI hit a high of about 396 days.

The IRTPA also required that 90% of all security clearances be completed in an average of 60 days by December 2009. In 2008 OPM investigative staff reached a high of 9,421 personnel, but declined somewhat since then. Unlike DSS, which was an appropriated fund activity, OPM conducts investigations on a fee-for-service basis and has the authority to set the prices it charges other Government agencies for the investigations they request. The combination of being paid for the investigations it conducted and using contract investigators to do the majority of the work afforded OPM the flexibility to rapidly adapt to changes in the number and type of investigations it conducted. Gradually the backlog of cases and the average turnaround time for investigations began to decline.

In early 2007 the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), OPM and DoD created a Joint Security and Suitability Reform Team (JSSRT) to completely revamp and unify the process. The JSSRT issued its initial report in April 2008 outlining a general framework for near and long term goals to modernize and streamline security clearance, employment suitability, and access to federally-controlled facilities and information systems government-wide. Some of these changes were implemented on schedule, some were delayed, modified, or partially implemented, and new changes were added. Security clearance reform became a continuous process often driven by unexpected events.

The most notable events that have occurred since 2008 are:


January 2009:
Executive Order 13488, Granting Reciprocity on Excepted Service and Federal Contractor Employee Fitness and Reinvestigating Individuals in Positions of Public Trust.
September 2009:
DISCO began electronic adjudication of Secret clearances. This followed implementation of eAdjudication at the Army Central Clearance Facility in February.
April 2010:
Chelsea Elizabeth Manning (born Bradley Edward Manning), an Army soldier, disclosed three-quarters of a million classified or unclassified but sensitive military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks. Manning was convicted in July 2013 of violations of the Espionage Act and other offenses and sentenced to 35 years imprisionment.
July 2010:
The Defense Central Index of Investigations (DCII) was transferred from DSS to the Defense Manpower Data Center (DMDC). This completed the transfer of DoD Personnel Security IT Systems from DSS to DMDC. Previously the Joint Personnel Adjudication System (JPAS), the Case Adjudication Tracking System (CATS), the Secure Web Fingerprint Transmission (SWFT), and the improved Investigative Records Repository (iIRR) were transferred from DSS to DMDC. These systems were eventually integrated into the Defense Information Systems for Security (DISS) along with the Industrial Security Facility Database (ISFD) and Educational Network Registration and On-Line Learning (ENROL). DISS was designed to provide Automated Records Check (ARC) and eAdjudication functionality and to be the single point of entry for DoD personnel security.
February 2011:
GAO reported removal of the DOD Personnel Security Program from its list of High Risk Programs, because of improvements to the program since it was first placed on the list in 2005. Timeliness requirements of the IRTPA were largely met, but a single database of investigations still doesn’t exist and investigative quality declined.
December 2011:
Title 5 Code of Federal Regulations Part 731 (5 CFR 731), “Suitability,” was changed to require Periodic Reinvestigations (PRs) on all “covered” Public Trust positions at 5-year intervals. PRs were previously not required by 5 CFR 731.
December 2012:
The Director of National Intelligence and the Director of the Office of Personnel Management jointly approved new Federal Investigative Standards (FIS), but no major action was immediately taken to implement any changes.
January 2013:
Six DoD Central Adjudication Facilities (CAFs) were consolidation into a single CAF.  The 4 other DoD CAFs (NSA, DIA, NGA, and DOHA) remain separate entities.
May 2013:
DSS announced suspension of PRs for Top Secret clearance of contractor personnel from 14 June to 30 September 2013 due to funding shortfalls. This followed similar action by the Air Force and Navy in February.
June 2013:
Edward Snowden was identified as the source of thousands of classified documents leaked to The Guardian newspaper, including information about the National Security Agency’s surveillance program known as PRISM.
September 2013:
Aaron Alexis, a federal contractor with a Secret clearance, murdered 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard (WNY).  News articles focused on Alexis’ Secret security clearance and the Government’s failure to uncover his past encounters with police and his mental problems. The President directed OMB to review security clearance policy.  DOD also ordered a review of security at U.S. military bases around the world.
October 2013:
The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it was intervening in a False Claims Act lawsuit against USIS. The lawsuit alleged that USIS had failed to perform quality control reviews of background investigations as required by its contract with OPM.
October 2013:
The backlog of industrial security clearances increased due to the government shutdown during the first 3 weeks in October and a flood of Top Secret PR requests following a 105-day moratorium.
January 2014:
DOD released its internal review and independent review of security practices related to the WNY Shooting. The Department of Navy released its review. The reviews recommend improving Continuous Evaluation, emphasizing individual reporting responsibilities, and establishing an insider threat management center.
January 2014:
Insider Threat & Security Clearance Reform became a Cross-Agency Priority Goal.
March 2014:
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released its report in response to the WNY Shooting. The Secretary of Defense (SecDef) approved four recommendations made by the DOD reviews of the WNY Shooting.  The SecNav approved all 14 recommendations from its investigation of the WNY Shooting.
August 2014:
Due to the reported compromise of security clearance records and the pending DOJ lawsuit charging USIS with contract fraud, OPM announced it would not renew its contract with USIS in October. Two thousand USIS investigative personnel lost their jobs. Most went to KeyPoint Government Solutions (KGS) and CACI, but a few hundred investigators decide to quit entirely, causing major investigative delays.
November 2014:
OPM implemented Tier 1 and Tier 2 investigations, replacing the NACI and MBI, respectively.
July 2015:
Title 5 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 1400, Designation of National Security Positions, was issued and replaced 5 CFR 732.  
July 2015:
A series of data breaches affecting the personnel and security clearance records of OPM and two of its contract investigations service providers culminated in the announcement of a massive breach of OPM files from May 2014 to April 2015 affecting the personal information of over 21 million people. All SF86s filled out since 2000 were compromised.
August 2015:
OPM shut down e-QIP for a month to improve computer security. Investigative backlog increased.  
October 2015:
After a price increase of about 20% in October 2014 and a retroactive price increase of 10% in July 2015, OPM increased the price of their investigations an additional 10%.  These increases were needed to pay for improved computer security and the cost of identity theft protection for over 21 million people who had their personal data stolen from OPM computer systems.
October 2015:
OPM implemented Tier 3 and Tier 3R investigations to replace the NACLC and ANACI investigation previously used for the initial and Periodic Reinvestigations for Secret clearances.
July 2015:
POTUS directed the Suitability and Security Performance Accountability Council to conduct a 90-day review of the OPM data breach.
December 2015:
The “Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016” became law and directed the use of relevant and appropriate information from social media and such other sources for security clearance eligibility determinations.
January 2016:
Following the completion of a 90-day review of the OPM data breaches, the President announced the intent to create a new “National Background Investigation Bureau” (NBIB) to replace the Federal Investigative Services Division of OPM. NBIB will continue to be under the administrative control of OPM, but will be under the operational control of Suitability and Security Performance Accountability Council with information technology support provided by DOD.
May 2016:
The Director of National Intelligence issued Security Executive Agent Directive 5 authorizing the use of publicly accessible social media information as a component of security clearance investigations.
May 2016:
Change 2 to the NISPOM required cleared contractors to establish Insider Threat Programs.
June 2016:
DoD announced the integration of various personnel security, facility clearance, and training databases into the Defense Information Systems for Security (DISS), providing a single portal to request, conduct, and record personnel security actions.
July 2016:
Due to FY2016 funding shortfalls, DSS limited investigative submissions to OPM, causing delays for industrial cases. Congress approved additional funding, enabling DSS to continue submitting work to OPM and to work down the backlog.
October 2016:
OPM implements the Tier 4 and 5 investigations for High Risk Public Trust positions and Top Secret clearances. Periodic reinvestigations will be known as a Tier 5R, replacing the SSBI-PR and PPR. Continuous Evaluation is the significant change implemented in the Tier 5 investigation.
October 2016:
The National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB) within OPM absorbed the existing mission, functions, and personnel of OPM's Federal Investigative Services (FIS) on October 1. Charles Phalen, Jr., former director of Security for the Central Intelligence Agency serves as the first director of the NBIB.
November 2016:
In a memo signed November 16, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper updates question S21 of the SF86, removing the requirement to list mental health counseling.
March 2017:
DSS announced it was not fully funded to pay for all of the 2017 investigations needed. OPM raised the cost of investigations and hired 700+ investigators.
April 2017:
The backlog of security clearance investigations was around 500,000 records, and clearance processing times continue to increase exponentially.
May 2017:
Top Secret clearance processing times are over 500 days. Budget shortfalls caused the Defense Security Service to hold back investigations until funding was available.
June 2017:
The Security Executive Agent Directive 4 (SEAD 4) implemented updated national security adjudication guidelines. Background investigators were authorized to conduct some interviews via phone, and even conduct Personal Subject Interviews (PSIs) via video teleconference for applicants who are deployed or serving in an overseas location.
July 2017:
An OPM IG report, Audit of the US Office of Personnel Management’s Security Assessment and Authorization Methodology, was released publicly. OPM continued to stay behind schedule, taking more than 500 days to process a Top Secret clearance application, with 700,000 uncompleted investigations in the queue. Defense Security Service announced its updated SF86, the new form going into effect in August.
August 2017:
The Defense Department announces out the Defense Information System for Security (DISS) to replace JPAS.
September 2017:
The backlog of 700,000 caused work delays for both federal and contracting efforts. Efforts to reduce the backlog started in conjunction with stress on tightening the reins, through the government expanding Continuous Evaluation.
November 2017:
Overall Top Secret security clearance investigation processing times increased by 60 days, including roughly 30 additional days for investigations and an additional 20 days for adjudications. Despite lengthening Top Secret Investigation timelines, Secret clearance investigation times were improving by 45 days.
January 2018:
The backlog reached historic heights hovering around 750,000 pending investigations.
March 2018:
Senate Intelligence Community hearing with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) points out issues in the security clearance process. The government looks to overhaul the entire security clearance process and ODNI launches Trusted Workforce 2.0. Wait times were averaging 534 days for Top Secret and 221 days for Secret and Confidential security clearances for DoD industry applicants.
April 2018:
Executive Order (EO) 13869 directed the transfer of the National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB) from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to the Department of Defense (DoD).
May 2018:
Securely Expediting Clearances Through Reporting Transparency Act of 2018 or the SECRET Act of 2018 reinstated the requirement to provide quarterly updates on processing times, explaining the process for conducting background investigations in the executive branch and reporting on the duplication of resources if a proposal to move investigations for defense department personnel back to the Department of Defense is approved.
June 2018:
The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act mandated a 3-year plan for DoD to take over control of its own investigations. eApp, the replacement for eQIP was piloted by 1,000 Army users.
July 2018:
Security clearance processing times for defense contractors are 543 days. Secret clearance processing times, which had seen a slight improvement, were also worse in the second quarter of Fiscal Year 2018 – 259 days. Top Secret reinvestigation clearance processing times saw the largest increase taking 697 days to process the fastest 90 percent of TS reinvestigations.
August 2018:
National Background Investigation System (NBIS) being developed by the Defense Information Services Agency (DISA). NBIS, an investigative case control and management system, OPMs Personnel Investigations Processing System (PIPS).
December 2018:
Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.) introduced the Modernizing the Trusted Workforce for the 21st Century Act. This legislation calls for set specific timelines for the Department of Defense to begin processing all government-wide security under existing goals to be set in law.
January 2019:
NBIB reduces the investigation inventory from a record high of 725,000 down to 594,000.
February 2019:
ODNI and OPM outlined their framework for overhauling the personnel vetting process – the most cumbersome and perhaps most scrutinized aspect of security clearance reform efforts – in a meeting with media.
April 2019:
Backlog down to 498,000 – a reduction of 32% from April 2018. Executive order is signed to transfer security clearance background investigations and sets a deadline of June 24 for the Secretary of Defense and head of OPM to reach an agreement on how exactly the transfer to DoD will take place.
June 2019:
The DoD appoints Charles Phalen, former director of NBIB to be the Acting Director of DCSA.
October 2019:
DCSA is founded to conduct personnel security investigations, supervise industrial security, and perform security education and awareness training. NBIB continues its work conducting investigations and managing the process until October 1. At this point, all NBIB employees became employees of the DoD.
November 2019:
In figures released at the NISPPAC meeting, DCSA noted a dramatic drop in security clearance processing times as of FY 2019 Q4 – 295 days for Top Secret clearances (down from a high that reached over 500 days), and 181 days for Secret security clearances, down from over 300 days. The backlog reaches a low of 267,000.
December 2019:
2020 National Defense Authorization Act requires a plan with milestones for reducing the background investigation inventory to 200,000 cases and calls for an update on Trusted Workforce 2.0.
January 2020:
William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on the status of Trusted Workforce 2.0 and the security clearance backlog. He noted timeliness of investigations improved 55% for Secret investigations and 60% for Top Secret investigations.
February 2020:
Executive Correspondence, “Transforming Federal Personnel Vetting: Measures to Expedite Reform and Further Reduce the Federal Government’s Background Investigation Inventory,” was signed by the Director of National Intelligence and the Director of the Office of Personnel Management February 3. It creates the framework for the further implementation of Continuous Vetting.
March 2020:
William Lietzau is named the director of the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency. Lietzau was previously the head of the Personnel Vetting Transformation Office.
April 2020:
The Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency continues to publish new coronavirus-related guidance almost daily, with an update posted yesterday providing guidance to agencies, directorates and cleared contractors related to more than a dozen niche issues surrounding personnel and industrial security.
May 2020:
The Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency notes the security clearance backlog is down to 180,000, and overall clearance processing times are 119 days for a Top Secret security clearance, 65 days for a Secret clearance for Q2 of 2020.

Other actions anticipated in the near future include a revision to the SF86, standardized reporting requirements for unfavorable information, and new Adjudicative Guidelines.

Questions and answers related to US Government security clearances, including those administered under the National Industrial Security Program (NISP), compiled by William H. Henderson.