Are Security Clearances Useless?

By Greg Cullison


What did Edward Snowden, Aaron Alexis, and Harold Thomas Martin have in common? All were government contractors, all took malicious action, and all held security clearances. With three major breaches in just under three years, the question must be asked: Are clearances useless?

Many argue that bad apples inevitably fall into the bunch every so often. Maybe that’s a valid idea, but it shouldn’t dismiss suggestions for clearance reform when the need is so clear. As we consider these calls for reform, it’s important to realize that security clearances were not always with us. During the American Revolutionary War, Patriots meeting secretly at the Red Dragon Inn relied on a common bond of trust. Unfortunately, they were penetrated by a pro-British spy who leaked their plans to the Redcoats. It wasn’t until well after the U.S. Civil War, with the Civil Service Act of 1883 that candidates for positions of public trust were scrutinized for their “suitability” to attain higher office based on a person’s “character, reputation, trustworthiness and fitness” for office.

The concept of loyalty to the United States came into focus during the two World Wars, and was a centerpiece of the anti-Communist concerns of the U.S. government at that time.  Executive Order 10450, which dates to 1953, during the Eisenhower Administration, still forms the basis of today’s security clearance requirements. The Executive Order gathered the foregoing requirements together, calling for potential federal employees to be “reliable, trustworthy, of good conduct and character, and of complete and unswerving loyalty to the United States.” It went further by defining the actual standards by which candidates could meet these requirements. Those entering what were deemed sensitive positions had to submit to a background investigation. The degree of sensitivity of the position determined how extensive an investigation was required.  

The requirements for reliability, trustworthiness, and upstanding character have not wavered, but the means for testing these attributes has not kept up with the changing security environment. Legal constraints make it more difficult to gather information. Greater automated information systems increase opportunities for espionage activity. Business operations have become highly international. Technology and services acquisition now involves the private sector to a greater extent than ever before.

Of course there have been many federal-level policy adjustments enacted since 1953. In 2016 alone, the administration has established a new government-wide service provider for background investigations (National Background Investigations Bureau, or NBIB) and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) announced several changes to mental health-questions in the SF-86 form to further stress the importance of mental wellness in federal employees and contractors.

Security clearances have not become useless, but the overall state of security clearance operations today is troubling. With increasingly regular incidences of hacking and insider espionage, security is top-of-mind for both federal and commercial executives. So why haven’t the practices kept up?

The short answer is that it takes a long time to implement high level policy changes, and new threats are emerging much faster than the existing process can keep up with. The long answer is much more complex.

The following blog posts will highlight key problems with the security clearance process and suggests possible long-term solutions and near-term, practical measures that leaders in personnel security can implement now to move toward government-wide security clearance process improvement, and ultimately influence future legislative action.

Brief History of Security Clearances in the U.S.


Civil Service Act

Created the Civil Service Commission (CSC). Employees were evaluated based on their requisite character, reputation, trustworthiness, and fitness for employment.


Espionage Act

Punished acts of espionage and military operations interference.


Hatch Act

Prohibited federal employment of anyone who is a member of any organization that advocates overthrow of U.S. Government.


Executive Order 8781

Required fingerprinting of all federal employees and directed the FBI to establish a system for criminal records.


Executive Order 9835

Denied federal employment to anyone with questionable loyalty.


National Security Act

Restructured military and intelligence agencies and established the National Security Agency (NSA) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).


Executive Order 10450

Required a full investigation for sensitive positions and at least a National Agency Check with Inquiries (NACI) for other federal positions. The intention was to determine applicants’ trustworthiness, good conduct, and loyalty to the United States.


Creation of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM)

Reorganized CSC into three new organizations, including OPM.


National Security Directive 63

Established Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI) for access to Top Secret (TS) defense information, Secret and TS Restricted Data, and Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI).


Executive Order 12986

Established the Security Policy Board to create a common set of investigative and adjudicative standards, improve clearance reciprocity, strengthen appeal procedures, and improve non-discrimination.

1996 - 1999

DIS Quota System for Periodic Reinvestigations (PR)

(Result): Submission quota significantly increased case backlog by restricting the quantity of Defense agency requests


DoD began submitting all security clearance investigations to OPM

(Result): Increased average turnaround time for an SSBI through OPM to about 396 days.


Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRPTA)

By 2009, 90% of clearance determinations were required within 60 days.


Joint Security Clearance Process Reform Team

DOD and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) created the Joint Reform Team to improve government-wide security clearance processes.


Executive Order 13467

Designated the Director of OPM as responsible for developing policies and procedures to ensure effective and timely suitability determinations.

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