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Research Questions

  1. Is there evidence that racial disparities exist in the security clearance process?
  2. What factors might contribute to the potential for racial bias in the security clearance process?
  3. What steps can be taken to mitigate bias in the security clearance process, if it exists?

Because security clearances are required for designated national security positions, results of the background investigation and adjudication process can affect an individual's recruitment, hiring, retention, promotion, and ability to pursue a career in the U.S. Department of Defense and in the broader national security community — including government contractors.

In this exploratory report, the authors consider the security clearance process through the lens of racial justice. They identify areas where bias might create a barrier for Black Americans seeking positions or career advancement in U.S. departments and agencies with a national security mission. The authors describe societal factors (financial, drug-related, and criminal) and human judgment factors (affinity bias, confirmation bias, and statistical discrimination) as they relate to the security clearance process, and how they may contribute to racial bias. The authors then recommend areas for improvement and further exploration in transparency, training, and awareness of bias.

The 2021 version of this report was revised in August 2022 to clarify that although nowhere in the security clearance process are data on race gathered, data on race is collected during the hiring process — a separate and distinct process from the security clearance process. To assess the potential for racial disparities using existing information would require the integration of data from these two processes, which was outside the scope of this study. This version of the report also updates a data source citation and includes additional clarifying caveats to indicate that some data sources are of a more anecdotal nature and not generalizable.

Key Findings

  • Nowhere in the security clearance process are data on race gathered, although data on race is collected during the hiring process — a separate and distinct process from the security clearance process. To assess the potential for racial disparities using existing information would require the integration of data from these two processes, which was outside the scope of this study.
  • There are societal factors (financial, drug-related, and criminal) and human judgment factors (affinity bias, confirmation bias, and statistical discrimination) that might contribute to racial bias in the security clearance process.
  • As technology and automation evolve, racial bias could surface within the algorithms used in the clearance process, potentially as the result of programmer biases or historical racial differences.
  • Individuals might not have a clear understanding of the data collected about them during the investigation process that inform adjudicative decisions.

Recommendations

  • Collect data on the race of applicants during the security clearance process to determine whether racial disparities exist in the submission of an application, completion of an interview, adjudication, or appeal decision.
  • Prioritize the maintenance of the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals' website to ensure accessibility to valuable and detailed information about the appeals process.
  • Ensure that training is in place for investigators and adjudicators to recognize and mitigate any biases that might correlate to unjustifiable associations of race with an increased risk to national security.
  • Conduct an independent assessment to review a subset of applications to determine whether racial bias might have affected their outcomes.
  • Raise awareness among governmental organizations responsible for oversight and accountability that algorithmic or machine learning models can reflect the biases of organizational teams and societal factors.
  • Encourage applicants to request their security clearance investigation records from the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the Forces and Resources Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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