Is the security clearance process biased? Intel leaders aim to find out

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The intelligence community is updating training standards and reviewing historical data to ensure the process of obtaining a security clearance isn’t a barrier to hiring and retaining more women, minorities and other individuals from diverse backgrounds.

The effort comes as the intelligence community continues to lag behind the broader workforce on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility metrics, despite some strides in recent years. Intelligence leaders say boosting diversity, and diverse perspectives, is an imperative for addressing national security challenges.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence is updating the national training standards for security clearance investigators and adjudicators to develop “consistent cultural competency training government-wide,” according to Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines.

“The personnel vetting community is taking deliberate steps to ensure that their processes are free from bias, allowing us to collect the data that we need and that they don’t hinder diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility,” Haines said during a July 14 event hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance. “We are also committed to periodically reviewing processes, training, triggers, criteria to ensure that they are keeping pace with evolving technology and societal changes.”

Earlier this year, ODNI established an Office for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility led by Stephanie La Rue, a former chief diversity strategist and lawyer at the Central Intelligence Agency.
Haines says La Rue is involved in reviewing new security clearance reforms under the government-wide “Trusted Workforce 2.0” initiative.

“I want her and her team to be looking at those issues, to think about them, and she has been working with our National Counterintelligence and Security Center on these issues,” Haines said.

Understanding the data behind security clearance decision-making will be key, Haines added.

“I don’t have enough data to tell you that,” Haines said when asked specifically whether the security clearance process treats neurodiverse individuals differently.

A 2021 report by the RAND Corporation, “Assessing the Potential for Racial Bias in the Security Clearance Process,” found that because data on race is not gathered during investigations and adjudications, “it cannot be definitively determined whether any racial disparities exist during the security clearance process.”

But that also may be changing.

In a May report to Congress on “Best Practices to Protect Privacy, Civil Liberties, and Civil Rights of Americans of Chinese Descent in the Conduct of U.S. Intelligence Activities,” ODNI revealed it is examining existing data to “investigate whether race or ethnicity of security clearance holders affects various points in the security clearance process, to include the length of security clearance investigations and the adjudicative results.”

The report posits that outcomes in the security clearance process could differ by race or ethnic because of factors like individuals having more foreign contacts with potential counterintelligence risks, like relationships with people in China.

“If resulting metrics indicate such a difference, NCSC and [the Office of Civil Liberties and Transparency] would determine points in the investigative and adjudicatory process that could benefit from additional training, more granular guidance, or enhanced oversight,” the ODNI report states.

Evolving DEI&A data

Haines pointed out that the intelligence community’s annual demographic report shows a more than 10% gap between the percentage of applicants to IC positions that identified as minorities and those ended up becoming new hires in 2020.

“That is an astonishing gap, when you look across the intelligence community, that really tells you something’s going wrong there,” she said during the INSA event.

Beyond security clearance reform, Haines says getting more granular, intersectional data will be key to further improving diversity across the intelligence community.

La Rue’s office is being staffed with data scientists and analysts to improve how ODNI collects diversity information, while using a “cloud service” to ingest, validate, analyze and report the data through an automated process, according to Haines.

In 2020, women made up just 31% of senior intelligence leaders, while women comprise 39% of all intelligence community employees. However, Hispanic women make up just 3% of the workforce, according to Haines.

“Our expectation is that future data will enable demographic analysis anonymized on the individual level that is more intersectional, which is imperative for understanding and recruiting officers who have overlapping identities, and we’ll be able to do this across elements,” she said.

ODNI is also “culling” reports that intelligence agencies are required to develop by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“They are an incredibly important mechanism for us getting the demographic analysis that we need,” Haines said. “This effort will enable interagency barrier analysis and the findings will be available to all our elements on an online dashboard. And the next stage of this effort will be critical for once we get better at revealing the challenges, we will need to actually act on the data that we’ve unearthed. But I do think we’re postured to get there.”

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