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Head Of Background Investigation Bureau Testifies Before Senate Intelligence Committee


The director of the federal agency that conducts most government background checks says he'd have a hard time granting a clearance in the following situation - when someone fails to disclose financial ties to a foreign government. White House aide Jared Kushner has amended his disclosure form several times after failing to disclose all his ties to foreign governments. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: At a Senate intelligence committee hearing, Charles Phalen, head of the National Background Investigation Bureau, said failing to disclose ties to foreign governments would have to be weighed with other factors in considering whether to grant someone a security clearance. But under questioning from Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, Phalen said it would be hard to ignore.


CHARLES PHALEN: There's nothing in today's standards that says any of those things, by themselves, are disqualifying. It would be a very important piece to consider.

RON WYDEN: Do you believe it ought to be disqualified?

PHALEN: I would have a hard time overcoming that.

WYDEN: Great. Thank you.

NAYLOR: Kushner had his temporary top-secret clearance downgraded last week, according to reports. Today's hearing was called to investigate why there's a backlog of more than 700,000 people who are waiting to get security clearances or to get theirs renewed. Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia said one problem is the antiquated procedures investigators follow.


MARK WARNER: It relies on shoe-leather field investigations that would be familiar to fans of spy films.

NAYLOR: Experts testified it now takes over a year for someone to get a top-secret clearance approved, leading some quality job applicants to give up on the government and take their talents elsewhere. Another issue is, people holding security clearances need to get them renewed. David Berteau of the Professional Services Council, a trade association of government contractors, says it's a repetitive and time-consuming process.


DAVID BERTEAU: I've lived in the same house for the last 29 years. Every time I fill that form out, it's the exact same information as it was the time before and the time before that and the time before that. It's already in their databases. They just make me do it again.

NAYLOR: Berteau said that even employees transferring from one government job to another have to get a renewed clearance. Independent Senator Angus King of Maine was incredulous.


ANGUS KING: I can't believe what you just said. You mean a person within the Homeland Security Department who has a clearance to move from one job in Homeland Security to another job in Homeland Security takes a hundred days?

BERTEAU: Yes, sir. And it could even mean that a contractor, sitting at the same desk, moving to a different contract has to go through a new process.

KING: That's preposterous.

NAYLOR: Industry groups say the clearance process could easily be streamlined, but government officials worry about the risk of too-loose standards producing another Edward Snowden, the government contractor who leaked classified information from the NSA. Still, because of the security backlog, there are thousands of employees and contractors on the job with lower-level, temporary clearances. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCO POLO'S "GET BUSY") 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.