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 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.

More than 4.3 million people hold security clearances of various levels, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. They include nearly 3 million at the “confidential” or “secret” level and more than 1 million at “top secret.”

Checking federal employees and private contractors is a laborious process that requires an extensive background check and an effort to judge a person’s trustworthiness.

Ninety-five percent of all background investigations are conducted by the National Background Investigations Bureau, which does some of the work itself and contracts the rest to private firms.

The backlog grew significantly after the government stopped doing business with a contractor that suffered a data breach in 2014. That depleted the government’s capacity to do investigations by 60 percent, said Charles Phalen, director of the investigations bureau.

Hundreds of new investigators have been hired since, Phalen said, but the backlog is “still way high.” He and other officials think the process needs to be updated to ensure the government can spot possible problems in real time.

Is a clearance holder dealing with money woes or personal problems, such as alcohol or drug addiction? Is there unexplained foreign travel, questionable use of computer networks, or other issues that might point to possible leaks?

Right now, clearance holders are reinvestigated about every five years, adding to the background checks for first-time applicants. Intelligence officials, industry leaders and lawmakers say continuous monitoring and evaluation are preferable.