WASHINGTON — A government backlog of 700,000 security clearance reviews has led agencies like the Defense Department to inadvertently issue interim passes to criminals — even rapists and killers — fueling calls for better and faster vetting of people with access to the nation's secrets.
The pileup, which is government-wide, is causing work delays for both federal and private intelligence efforts. It takes about four months to acquire a clearance to gain access to "secret" information on a need-to-know basis, and nine to 10 months for "top-secret" clearance.
Efforts to reduce the backlog coincide with pressure to tighten the reins on classified material. Still, calls for a faster clearance process are getting louder.
"If we don't do interim clearances, nothing gets done," Dan Payne, director of the U.S. Defense Security Service, said last week at an intelligence conference.
Yet Payne described handing out interim clearances as risky business. On the basis of partial background checks, people are being given access to secret and top-secret information sometimes for long periods of time, he said.
"I've got murderers who have access to classified information," he said. "I have rapists. I have pedophiles. I have people involved in child porn … and I'm pulling their clearances on a weekly basis."
"We are giving those people access to classified information with only the minimum amount of investigation. This is why we have to fix this process. This is why we have to drive these timelines down."
More than 4.3 million people hold security clearances of various levels, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. They include nearly 3 million at the "confidential" or "secret" level and more than 1 million at the "top-secret" level.