Without question, the United States has suffered several high-profile breaches of national security involving leaks of highly classified information the likes of which is so sensitive the losses in capability are incalculable.

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, former U.S. Army Spec. Bradley (now Chelsey) Manning, and one of the most recent breaches involving another contractor, Reality Winner, are just a few of the most notable breaches of sensitive data. Wikileaks is also responsible for publishing highly classified, leaked documents.

It used to be very rare for these kinds of breaches to occur. However, these days they are occurring with alarming frequency; the question is why?

One answer may be the government’s massive backlog of security clearances:

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. In recent years, intelligence agencies have suffered some of the worst leaks of classified information in U.S. history. 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.

Source: Associated Press

Analyst comment: This is a major problem that too few in Congress seem interested in solving. Without a properly functioning, highly talented, efficient intelligence community, all Americans are at greater risk. And when it comes to fighting a global war, you only get one chance to get it wrong.

Part of the issue is that the U.S. national security apparatus has grown exponentially in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks 16 years ago, but there are no efforts, currently, to reduce the size and scope of the apparatus, especially as threats arise from Global North great powers and smaller nation-state actors.

Some might also argue that the sheer number of clearances also makes leaks more likely. At present, about 3 million people hold “confidential” and “secret” clearances, while about 1 million hold “top secret” clearances. When you factor in 10-year renewals, the personnel who investigate clearance applicants have a daunting challenge. Some 95 percent of background checks are performed by the National Background Investigations Bureau, which does some of the work itself and contracts the rest to private firms. 

The government has hired hundreds more people to conduct background checks, but the experts say that’s not the problem, it’s the system, which dates back to the 1940s. According to one, “We have to reimagine how this is done.” 

What’s more, the timing couldn’t be worse. The backlog comes at a point when intelligence agencies are already scrambling to keep their ranks filled with skilled people.