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WASHINGTON — Most security clearances for sensitive government work now take less than three months to process, a dramatic improvement but still behind the two-month standard Congress mandated by the end of 2009.

The Office of Personnel Management and the Defense Department processed nearly 450,000 requests for confidential, secret and top-secret clearances in fiscal 2008, and completed nearly 360,000 within 87 days, according to new data from the Government Accountability Office.

Two years ago, the average for most cases was more than 120 days, according to OPM statistics. The GAO praised the agencies for improvements but noted they still need better practices to reach the 60-day goal.

In a letter to the GAO, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence James Clapper Jr. wrote that the wait time for 80 percent of clearance cases has dropped even further, to about 76 days, as of the end of October.

He added that a joint security team has also recommended improvements to the process — among them stricter regulations on time lines and documentation of cases — and expects to meet the congressional goal.

About 2.5 million servicemembers, defense employees and department contractors hold some level of security clearance, according to the GAO.

Over the last four years, Defense officials and OPM leaders have worked closely to simplify the clearance process, sharing more information and establishing better standards for handling paperwork in an effort to more quickly process cases.

Monday’s report from the GAO also reviewed 3,500 top-secret clearance applications that were approved, finding that nearly 90 percent were missing at least one type of required documentation. Those included records of interviews, employment background checks and personal references of employees.

"Incomplete clearance documentation may increase the risk of adjudicators missing patterns of behavior in subsequent clearance renewals," the GAO report said.

But Defense Department officials dismissed those concerns, saying most of the problems found amounted to little more than clerical errors that did not affect the overall process.

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