Imagine a “Secret” security clearance that is no longer subject to 10-year background investigation interviews and is instead, constantly and automatically reviewed on a daily basis using technological scrutiny. It may also be used across agencies and outside of the U.S. government.

This is the Defense Department’s goal, Joseph D. Kernan, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, said Monday during his GEOINT 2018 keynote address. And it’s of particular interest to those among the 732,000-person backlog of individuals awaiting clearance.

About 70 percent of the backlog involves Secret clearances. With automation at that level, investigators could be freed up to scrutinize higher-level clearances.

“We will fix the background investigation process and the backlog,” Kernan said. “A cleared and trusted workforce, that’s what the objective is, inside and outside of government. It’s too critical to our nation’s defense and our security work to not resolve it and resolve it quickly.”

Security clearances were among several items on a list, in no particular order, of what Kernan said he considers his top priorities:

  • Support the warfighter and decision-makers with timely and relevant intelligence
  • Collaborate closely with all elements and organizations within the intelligence enterprise, foreign and domestic, and integrate them where it makes sense
  • Engage with Congress and industry for support
  • Leverage commercial technologies and innovations
  • Elevate security practices, which include mitigating cyber threats
  • Enhancing industrial supply chain security
  • Protecting critical technology

Since taking office last December, quipped Kernan, a former Navy SEAL, he has had “four-plus months on the pencil, policy, and meeting side of lethality.”

Of his decision to speak at GEOINT 2018, Kernan acknowledged, “Had I not worked in the commercial sector and come to learn how much capability and how much technology remains untapped from those places where a lot of you actually reside, I likely would’ve declined the offer. So my expectations are extremely high about a vibrant partnership with industry.”

Such partnerships could be essential to the DoD’s desired approach to the security clearance process, which is being developed in conjunction with other members of the Intelligence Community and requires approval by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

“We’re building a concept that leans upon what you all do,” Kernan said. “It’s about innovation. It’s about technology. … The premise is that you can automatically and continually evaluate people by searching approved networks. If you come into the Defense Department, and if you want a clearance from industry, we’re going to hold you to task on these things.”

As with many recent GEOINT Symposia, discussion of artificial intelligence and machine learning is everywhere. At GEOINT 2017 in San Antonio, OUSD(I) Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan announced Project Maven, intended to bring AI and machine learning to the battlefront for operational use.

Maven, said Kernan, is alive, well, and dependent on industry. “We fail if industry doesn’t help us with it,” he said.

The program serves as proof that more timely acquisition can be accomplished.

“The interesting thing about Maven was that the whole project was under contract within two months,” Kernan said. “Within six months, it actually delivered capability. And the capability was not conceived and tested within the Pentagon. It was tested overseas.”

His point was that capability is best accomplished when those who use it are included in development. Kernan also addressed concern that Maven is an attempt to take humans out of the intelligence loop.

“Maven was not to replace analysts,” he said. “Project Maven is about enabling analysts to be able to use their cognitive thought processes, more than having to ‘finger-push’ into a computer. We need to use their intellectual capabilities, and machine learning will enable the humans to make the decisions and make recommendations.”

He added the DoD is working toward establishing a machine learning center within the department.

Supply chain security is another priority under Kernan, given reports of theft of technology from support systems. New software vulnerability to cyber-exploitation is under scrutiny.

“My sense is that any type of contract is going to have a component of security in it,” he said. “Industry, just as we have to do, is going to have to secure the entire supply chain that they’re involved in in delivering something to the Defense Department.”

“It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be very difficult.”

Kernan also expressed concern about a lack of collaboration among the Intelligence Community—“I’m going to fight my way through that,” he said—and about the future defense workforce.

“I think our intelligence organizations are in pretty great shape, but I get to the piece where I worry about young people being interested in coming into government,” Kernan said. “We’ve got to encourage them. They’re so tech savvy and they’re so smart. We have to get into their DNA and make sure they understand how important it is for national security.”

Headline Image: Former Navy Seal and current Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, Joseph D. Kernan, stressed innovation, technology, and partnership with industry when he addressed the crowd at GEOINT 2018.

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Posted by Jim Hodges