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Agency Conducting Government Background Checks Has Backlog Of 700,000


Despite the accusations of domestic violence against him, Rob Porter was able to get an interim security clearance so he could work in the White House. Security clearances are required for millions of jobs throughout the federal government. And there is a big backlog of applications. Some 700,000 people are waiting to get their clearances approved or renewed. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: If you work for the government, chances are you have a security clearance. More than 3 million federal civilian and military jobs require some sort of clearance from confidential up to top secret. That's more than half of all federal jobs. Another 1.2 million clearances are held by contract employees.

EVAN LESSER: You're looking at anyone from the guy that washes dishes in the White House all the way up to Ph.D.-level scientists doing, you know, nuclear and biological work.

NAYLOR: Evan Lesser is founder and president of ClearanceJobs, a website that attempts to match job applicants to openings in the government and with contractors. He says security clearances are needed not just because a worker deals with classified documents. Maybe they just work near them.

LESSER: That's why you'll have someone who is working in the White House in a blue-collar position - you know, needs a security clearance. So someone who's fixing the air conditioning in a government contracting facility needs a security clearance. It's not just spy work, as most people think when they talk about security clearances.

NAYLOR: So with all those jobs requiring security clearances, it stands to reason there's a bit of a wait to get one. The government has investigators and hires other contractors to conduct background checks of job applicants. Meagan Metzger is founder of Dcode, which helps companies work with the government, and has herself had a security clearance.

MEAGAN METZGER: At the basic level, you know, they're going to look at, are you financially sound? Are you - your employment history, kind of the basics. Do you have a criminal record?

NAYLOR: And for a top secret clearance, Metzger says...

METZGER: It's going to go much deeper than that. They're going to talk to everyone you know, everyone you've lived with. They're going to conduct a polygraph. They're going to kind of do a lot more investigation into your background.

NAYLOR: And that can take time - for a top secret clearance, sometimes more than a year of checking. Meanwhile, in many instances, agencies hire applicants because of their skills, but they can't be put into the jobs until they get their clearance. Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia says this is a bad deal for taxpayers.

MARK WARNER: We are wasting money hiring people, then not allowing them to do their job that they were hired for because they may have to wait months or in certain cases even beyond a year before they get the security clearance. That's not an efficient way to run an operation. And many of these individuals have talents and skills, particularly as we move into the technology field, where they are desperately needed.

NAYLOR: Warner, who is vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wants to see reforms to the background check system, including better utilizing technology.

WARNER: Do you really need to personally talk to an individual's neighbors? Or the fact that you've traveled overseas one time - should these be the determining criteria rather than using technology means - even in certain cases we have people going back and physically checking the college records of individuals rather than doing that online.

NAYLOR: And while there's attention now on who gets or doesn't get security clearances at the White House, security experts say alleviating that backlog elsewhere in government is critical to make it work. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF NYM'S "REDWOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.