Security Clearances:

FBI Has Enhanced Its Process for State and Local Law Enforcement Officials

GAO-04-596: Published: Apr 30, 2004. Publicly Released: Apr 30, 2004.

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The free flow of information among federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies could prove vital to fighting the war on terrorism. State and local law enforcement officials are key stakeholders in the United States' efforts to combat terrorism, and as such, they may require access to classified national security information to help prevent or respond to terrorist attacks. In order to gain access to such information, state and local law enforcement officials generally need federal security clearances. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) grants security clearances and shares classified information with state and local law enforcement officials. Immediately following September 11, 2001, some state and local law enforcement officials expressed frustration with the complexity of the process for obtaining security clearances. Others expressed frustration with the length of time it took to obtain a security clearance. These frustrations exacerbated the general concern among law enforcement stakeholders that the lack of security clearances could impede the flow of critical information from the FBI to the state and local level, from the state and local level to the FBI, and laterally from one state or local agency to another. In turn, this potential lack of access to critical terrorism-related information might place local law enforcement officials at a disadvantage in their efforts to respond to or combat a terrorist threat. The Ranking Minority Member, Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts, Senate Committee on the Judiciary asked us to examine several issues regarding the FBI's process for granting security clearances to state and local law enforcement officials. This report provides information on: (1) the FBI's process for granting security clearances to state and local law enforcement officials, (2) the extent to which the FBI has met its time frame goals for processing security clearance applications for state and local law enforcement officials and factors that could affect the timely processing of security clearance applications, and (3) efforts undertaken by the FBI to enhance its security clearance and information-sharing processes with state and local law enforcement officials.

The FBI's process for granting access to classified information requires state and local law enforcement officials to undergo the same background investigation and adjudication procedures as do individuals who have an employment relationship with the federal government and require access to classified national security information. The FBI's goal is to complete the processing for secret security clearances within 45 to 60 days and top secret security clearances within 6 to 9 months, beginning with the FBI headquarters' receipt of the application from the FBI field office. Since September 11, about 92 percent of applications for top secret security clearances were processed within the FBI's time frame goals. During this same period, about 26 percent of secret security clearance applications were processed within the FBI's time frame goals, although substantial improvements have been made in the most recent quarters for which we have data. The FBI was more successful with processing top secret security clearances within its stated time frame goals than secret security clearances, in part because the FBI often assigns greater priority to processing applications for state and local Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) members, who are required to have top secret clearances. For either secret or top secret security clearance applications, processing timeframes can vary depending on the complexity of individual cases. The FBI has taken a number of steps to enhance its process for granting security clearances to, and sharing information with, state and local law enforcement officials. One of the impediments highlighted was the state and local officials' and the FBI field office staff's lack of a clear understanding of the FBI's security clearance granting process. In response to this impediment, the FBI headquarters widely distributed step-by- step guidance to state and local law enforcement officials and reeducated the FBI field staff on the FBI security clearance process and goals. In addition, the FBI added staff to its headquarters unit responsible for adjudicating state and local security clearance applications and created databases to track state and local security clearance applications. Efforts undertaken by the FBI to enhance information sharing with state and local officials include increasing the number of JTTFs from 35 to 84 and increasing state and local law enforcement officials' participation on these forces. Serving on JTTFs provides state and local law enforcement officials the opportunity to interact with the FBI on a daily basis. The FBI also circulates declassified intelligence through a weekly bulletin and provides threat information to state and local law enforcement officials via various database networks.

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