Washington — The Pentagon agency that screens military employees for access to secrets has a backlog of almost a half-million investigations, and the checks are taking longer than ever to complete, Defense Department officials told Congress on Friday.
The backlog means that thousands of people military, civilian and employees of defense contractors are unable to perform work they were hired to do, and thousands of others have not undergone the required periodic reinvestigation to ensure they're still trustworthy.
Pentagon officials say the backlog has been reduced a bit in the past few months, but concede that major problems remain.
The most troubling statistics are those for top secret initial investigations and periodic reinvestigations, Robert J. Lieberman, the Defense Department's deputy inspector general, told the House Government Reform Committee's national security panel.
"Top secret clearances are intended to protect the most sensitive national security data," he said in testimony. "The prospect of vital positions going unfilled because of delayed initial clearances or of those positions being held by individuals with grossly outdated clearances, both on a mass scale, is clearly disturbing."
Yet initial top secret investigations were taking an average of 403 days, compared with 359 days last September, he said, citing Defense Security Service data from January. And reinvestigations of those already holding top secret clearances were taking an average of 470 days, compared with 386 days last September.
As of last Sept. 30, a total of 2.1 million people either held or were seeking Defense Department security clearances, including 452,000 with top secret clearance, 1.6 million with secret clearance and 74,000 confidential clearance.
Subcommittee Chairman Christopher Shays, R-Conn., raised the specter of the FBI agent recently accused of spying for the Russians as he decried the work of the Defense Security Service.
"Accused spy Robert Hanssen knew he had at least five years between the background checks required for his clearance to access top-secret information at the FBI," Shays said. "He could rely on that blind spot in our national security defenses to help him avoid detection.
Although the risks posed by the delays at the Pentagon have long been apparent, Shays said, the agency had made only "marginal progress" in reducing the backlog. Just getting the lengthy applications scanned into the computers won't be done until the end of 2002, a delay of a year from the previous estimate. And that's just the start of the process.