Federal officials who oversee millions of active security clearances said they will relax the rules that trigger security reviews for people who face financial hardships.
The change announced Monday aims to reduce the hardships resulting from layoffs, furloughs and other economic disruptions caused by shutdowns now affecting most of the country.
“It is important that we ensure trusted security clearance holders, or applicants who may suffer financial hardships as a result of the virus, are not unduly penalized because of circumstances beyond their control,” the National Counterintelligence and Security Center wrote in a memo.
Specifically, the policy calls for security clearance reviews to take a broad interpretation of the “mitigation factors” that provide special consideration for people whose “financial problems were largely beyond the person’s control (e.g. loss of employment, a business downturn, unexpected medical emergency, a death, divorce or separation, clear victimization by predatory lending practices or identify theft)”.
Traditionally, security clearance reviews have frowned on debt and personal financial problems as a risk factor because it can increase an individual’s susceptibility to bribes or blackmail or increase the risk of being coerced into espionage.
About 4.2 million people are cleared to have some access to restricted information for work with the federal government and government contractors; around 3.6 million of those are Defense Department employees or contractors, according to defense officials.
Last year, the Defense Department had a backlog of about 200,000 security clearance reviews.
Thorough reviews for security clearances are conducted every five years for those with Top Secret clearances. Reviews can also be triggered at any time if overseers identify new risk factors such as missing credit card payments, missing child support payments, getting sued or involvement with the criminal justice system. The precise factors that can trigger a review are classified.
The changes to the policy may be especially helpful for veterans who are transitioning out of the military and are seeking to hold onto their clearance while they look for post-military jobs in the government and private sector.
The revised guidance for security clearance reviews comes after a request from Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, who feared that people could risk losing their positions if they heed the advice of health professionals and subsequently lose out on a paycheck in order to self-quarantine.
“I write to ask you to issue guidance directing agencies to exercise appropriate leniency in considering how the coronavirus (COVID-19) may be negatively impacting adjudications for a security clearance or determination of trust,” Warner wrote on March 11.