A review of more than 2,000 cases in January and February 2006 showed it took an average of 446 days, or about 15 months, for first-time clearances, Derek B. Stewart, a senior official at the Government Accountability Office told a Senate homeland security subcommittee.
Under a 2004 law, Stewart said in testifying and in an interview, the clearances should be completed within 120 days.
"These are industry personnel applying for top-secret clearances," Stewart said. "These are critical jobs. The government cannot get its business done and the taxpayer ends up paying more the longer it takes the government to process clearances."
Replacements who have clearances often are hired by contractors, and sometimes at premium wages, during the process, he said.
"I'll tell you right up front that the results of our study were quite disturbing," he testified.
Inexperienced investigators, faulty use of technology and an overly layered process of reviewing applications all contributed to the delays, he said.
Stewart attributed the slow process to the Pentagon and the Office of Personnel Management. Officials of the two government offices told the subcommittee, however, that they intended to undertake improvements.
Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, agreed there was a need for improvement, particularly in the use of technology.
"I find it hard to believe that in the year 2007, we continue to rely on a paper-intensive clearance process," the senior Republican on the subcommittee said.
He said the federal government should be taking advantage of innovative technology.
"Our clearance processing system remains broken," Voinovich said.