State Department struggles to clear interns

State Department struggles to clear interns

On Sunday, the NYT’s Peter Baker noted that only 304 of 543 appointed positions have been filled by the Obama administration after nearly a year. Though some of the hold-up has been from petty pork-barrel politics in the Senate, much more has resulted from the White House’s incredibly tough preemptive vetting of its own appointees.

This vetting, which has already stopped Paul Farmer from heading USAID, has been defended by the White House, which argues it is ahead of the historical precedent. Why isn’t that reassuring? 

Even less reassuring is David Herbert’s report in the National Journal that the State Department struggling to get security clearances for its interns in time for the periods they were supposed to be working.

One would-be intern, a graduate student at Tufts, came to Washington in May for a summer gig working on development issues. But he never got his security clearance and never started his internship. He’s driving home to New York today after spending a frustrating summer spent calling his congressmen for help and wondering what happened.

“With the clearance process, as an applicant, you don’t know anything,” he said.

Not only are some going home without ever starting, the State Department actually takes this into account when choosing its number of interns. Don’t we need to attract more talent into civil service, not scare it off with bureaucracy?

Even worse, the prospective interns most likely to run into delays are those who have spent time living or studying overseas, according to Daniel Hirsch, co-founder of Concerned Foreign Service Officers:

The Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which handles clearances, farms out most investigations to contractors, who are more efficient at processing applications than the bureau’s agents, he said. But when an applicant has lived or traveled extensively overseas (as Buniewicz and others interviewed have), Diplomatic Security (DS) takes over. “Most DS agents consider [personnel security background investigations] to be beneath them, and security clearance investigations are a very low priority item for most overseas DS agents, so they probably sit on the back burner for a while,” Hirsch said. 

So it is harder to get an early jump on a career at the State Department if you already have international experience. No wonder Paul Farmer gave up on the bureaucratic route.

As a side note, why do interns require such significant security checks? The old joke about interns running everything notwithstanding, are they really handling that much classified material? Any State interns out there, let us know. 

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