Cadet 1st Class Derek Travis reviews instructions for filling out a security clearance questionnaire Jan. 12 in the Air Force Academy’s foreign language lab. Budget cuts will eliminate the updates on clearance, which were done every five years. (Mike Kaplan / Air Force)
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Budget cuts have forced the Air Force to suspend investigations into whether airmen with Top Secret clearances still meet the criteria to hold their security clearance.
The suspension was one of several cost-saving efforts announced in a March 11 memo signed by Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Spencer and acting Air Force Undersecretary Jamie Morin and obtained by Air Force Times. Since March 1, the Air Force has been scrambling to deal with massive cuts to defense spending known as sequestration.
Other moves outlined in the memo include allowing the major commands decide if any functional and Inspector General inspections can be suspended, limiting spouse travel and canceling exercises.
“These events are unprecedented for the [Defense] Department and the USAF,” the memo says. “As such, it is critical that we maintain very open communication lines to ensure maximum awareness of actions and consistency of application of all sequestration guidance. This will enable us to inform leadership of notable events and assist in the preparation for media/congressional inquiries.”
The Air Force did not respond by deadline to questions about how these moves will affect airmen.
Every five years, the Air Force is supposed to update its background investigations into personnel who hold Top Secret clearances, according to an Air Force instruction.
Top Secret clearances are required in every major mission area in the Air Force, said retired Maj. Gen. James Poss, former assistant deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
The clearances are required most often for airmen in the intelligence and nuclear missions, but they are also frequently required for airmen involved with command and control, cyber, space, and research and acquisition, Poss said in an email.
“Sequestration is driving the Air Force to make some very tough choices, and this decision to suspend periodic reinvestigations is certainly one of those decisions,” Poss said. “It’s an acceptable risk, but it still risks our ability to detect and address personal security issues before they become a problem.
“We’ll still do initial investigations, so we’ll know if there’s security risks when we bring an airman into a sensitive program. We won’t have the routine reinvestigations normally conducted every five years. Hence, if a problem develops later, it will be tougher to detect.”
But the security risks should be minimal because periodic re-investigations rarely result in people losing their Top Secret security clearance, said retired Col. Terry Stevens, who has more than 30 years of experience with personnel matters.
“Re-investigating Top Secret security clearances, you don’t get anything out of it except the expense,” Stevens said. “I can’t remember on a periodic ever hearing of anybody’s security clearance being revoked or downgraded.”
It’s more common for people to lose their security clearances if the Air Force launches an investigation into someone it believes has violated the terms of his security clearance, Stevens said.
“If they have to reason to believe that you’re sleeping with the enemy, that’s a re-investigation that’s gonna happen every time,” he said.
Planning for this fiscal year has been difficult as the Air Force has tried to deal with lawmakers who opposed the sequestration cuts yet allowed them to happen rather than compromise on how to cut the deficit.
Now that the cuts have become a reality, the Air Force is allowing the leaders of major commands to decide if any functional or IG inspections can be skipped, the memo says.
“High priority should be given to nuclear-related inspections,” said the memo.
So far, Air Education and Training Command is keeping all inspections despite the budget cuts, while Pacific Air Forces has not decided whether to cut inspections, officials said. Air Combat Command will conduct readiness and compliance inspections for some but not all of its combat units, and Air Force Materiel Command will prioritize which inspections to conduct based on reduced funding levels.
The memo did not say how budget cuts will affect the Air Force’s plan to replace operational readiness inspections with a new evaluation system that would give more oversight responsibility to wing commanders.
The new system is supposed to begin implementation this summer and could be adopted servicewide in two years, Air Force officials said last year.
Under the guidance for how to deal with budget cuts, the Air Force will not approve spouse travel except for required pre-command training, such as squadron, group or wing pre-command courses, the memo says.
“However, [chief of staff], [vice chief of staff] and MAJCOM commander spouse travel is authorized for the purpose of base visits (and only base visits) when the visit has a robust spouse agenda, the spouse is accompanied by the active duty member and MILAIR is available,” the memo says. “No commercial travel is authorized and all travel must be at no cost to the AF.”
The Air Force also has canceled all exercises unless they are required for pre-deployment training. As such, all Red Flag exercises for the rest of the fiscal year have been canceled, said Lt. Gen. Michael Moeller, deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and programs.
By mid-April, training for fighter and mobility pilots not preparing to deploy will cease, causing a drop in readiness from which it will take years to recover, Moeller said at a March 12 Air Force Association Breakfast.
“What we do today affects us three years from now,” he said.
Recently, a group of three-star generals spent two days developing a plan to deal with diminishing defense spending over the next decade, Moeller said. Priorities include finding the right mix of active, Air National Guard and Reserve airmen.
To that end, the Air Force’s Total Force Task Force, a group of three two-star generals from each component, is beginning its work to move away from the budget battles the service faced on Capitol Hill last year with Guard proponents.
Unfortunately, none of the budget pain the Air Force is experiencing goes away next fiscal year. In February, Spencer said the effects of sequestration will be felt for years.
“Sequestration involves a 10-year, $500 billion cut, so it’s not like this magic money is going to fall on us if we get sequestered on Oct. 1,” Spencer told reporters. “We will have more flexibility to allocate where the money goes on Oct. 1 if we go into sequestration, but our spending levels will still be down.”