Donald Trump’s plan to shake up Washington is facing a daunting obstacle — a security clearance system already struggling because of reorganisation and a half-million strong backlog.
An influx of fresh faces is what Mr Trump’s voters, disgusted by Washington insiders, want from the new president. But many newcomers to government will be confronted by their first clearance investigations. Others could have overseas ties that must be probed at a time when investigations for “Top Secret” clearances are taking on average 225 days, almost three times the government’s goal.
“I think it’s going to be significantly harder,” Steven Bongardt, a retired FBI agent who once conducted background checks, says of the round of vetting Mr Trump’s nominees. “Especially if he’s trying to deal with people who haven’t been in an administration before — 4,000 people who don’t have a track record of being a DC insider.”
A squad within the FBI’s Washington Field Office, called the special inquiry unit, carries out background checks for White House officials and senior cabinet officials. Agents will face pressure to complete their work before the new president is sworn in, but otherwise should not face big problems clearing the most important appointments.
“There’ll be new faces coming in,” says Robert Anderson, who retired in January after 21 years with the FBI. “But what the bureau does, we’ve done forever. So that’s not going to be an issue.”
Individuals applying for national security jobs first complete a 127-page form known as the SF-86, which covers employment history, foreign travel, alcohol and drug use, financial issues, medical history and other personal details.
Investigators interview friends and co-workers, check criminal records and credit reports and verify applicant information. If the investigation uncovers problems, the final decision on a clearance is made by the requesting agency.
Some of those Mr Trump has already chosen, such as Senator Jeff Sessions, nominated for attorney-general, and Representative Mike Pompeo, tapped to head the Central Intelligence Agency, are already cleared for classified material. Retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, chosen by Mr Trump as national security adviser, held a security clearance until he stepped down as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014. Since then, however, he has travelled to Moscow to dine with Russian President Vladimir Putin and accepted speaking fees from RT, the Russian state-funded broadcaster, which will draw scrutiny.
There have also been conflicting reports about Mr Trump’s children and his influential son-in-law, Jared Kushner. After reports that a transition official last week had inquired about giving Mr Trump’s relatives the right to see classified material, the president-elect tweeted: “I am not trying to get ‘top level security clearance’ for my children.”
But while officials are confident of vetting top level personnel in good time, staffing the remainder of the Trump administration will pose the first test of a new background check organisation that began work only last month and is expected to process more than 1m clearance applications each year.
I think it’s going to be significantly harder. Especially if he’s trying to deal with people who haven’t been in an administration before — 4,000 people who don’t have a track record of being a DC insider
The National Background Investigations Bureau was established in response to a 2015 computer hack that disclosed sensitive personal information belonging to more than 21m individuals who had applied for federal government jobs.
On Capitol Hill, there has been bipartisan concern for months about whether the office, which will handle 95 per cent of background checks, is up to the job. Senators Jon Tester and Claire McCaskill, members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, wrote to the Obama administration twice in recent months to express alarm.
Marnee Banks, a spokeswoman for Mr Tester, said the lawmaker was not satisfied with the responses. “He is concerned about the National Background Investigations Bureau’s readiness to handle the incoming surge of background investigations with the new administration, particularly due to the extensive backlog that already exists,” she said, referring to the roughly 500,000 investigations for new or renewed clearances.
The investigations system has a spotty track record. Last year, the Department of Justice settled charges with USIS, a company that conducted background checks from 1996 to 2014, over its failure to complete contractually required reviews. The company, which agreed to forgo at least $30m, was responsible for carrying out a security clearance review into Edward Snowden, then a contractor for the US National Security Agency. Two years later Mr Snowden began leaking details of classified surveillance programmes.
Background investigations have dogged previous presidential transitions. In 1992, FBI agents complained that a disorganised incoming Clinton team gave them inadequate time to perform security checks on officials, including Ron Brown, the then-Democratic Party chairman who became commerce secretary.
The complexity of an investigation depends upon an individual’s background. Clearing a recent college graduate who has lived at one address is much easier than clearing a middle-aged executive who has moved around several states or countries.
“It’s just a matter of how much dirt is too much dirt,” a retired FBI agent said.