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Washington — A government backlog of 700,000 security clearance reviews has led agencies like the Defense Department to inadvertently issue interim passes to criminals — even rapists and killers — fueling calls for better and faster vetting of people with access to the nation’s secrets.

The pileup, which is government-wide, is causing work delays for both federal and private intelligence efforts. It takes about four months to acquire a clearance to gain access to “secret” information on a need-to-know basis, and nine to 10 months for “top-secret” clearance.

Efforts to reduce the backlog coincide with pressure to tighten the reins on classified material. In recent years, intelligence agencies have suffered some of the worst leaks of classified information in U.S. history. Still, calls for a faster clearance process are getting louder.

“If we don’t do interim clearances, nothing gets done,” Dan Payne, director of the U.S. Defense Security Service, said last week at an intelligence conference.

Yet Payne described handing out interim clearances as risky business. On the basis of partial background checks, people are being given access to secret and top-secret information sometimes for long periods of time, he said.

“I’ve got murderers who have access to classified information,” he said. “I have rapists. I have pedophiles. I have people involved in child porn. I have all these things at the interim clearance level and I’m pulling their clearances on a weekly basis.”

“We are giving those people access to classified information with only the minimum amount of investigation. This is why we have to fix this process. This is why we have to drive these timelines down.”

Payne didn’t say how many criminals his agency has discovered, if their offenses were new or old, or if any of them had mishandled classified material. Efforts to reach him for this story were unsuccessful.

People being investigated for interim clearances are subject to background checks, too, but quick access to state and local records can be challenging, said a former Defense Department official, who was not authorized to speak about the issue and commented only on condition of anonymity.

More than 4.3 million people hold security clearances of various levels, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

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