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Reorg puts DOD in charge of clearances

The Trump administration wants to change the security clearance process in the hopes of breaking through a logjam of unprocessed background investigations that has stymied the work of federal agencies and contractors alike.

The White House re-organization plan released June 21 includes major proposed changes to the security clearance process across government. Under the plan, the Office of Personnel Management would cede its remaining authority around background investigations to other agencies, while the National Background Investigations Bureau would be absorbed into the Department of Defense.

The proposal -- which requires adoption by Congress -- would dramatically overhaul the federal government's approach to processing background investigations and security clearances. The Defense Security Service is already set to take on responsibility for DOD personnel later this year, and the transfer of NBIB would make DOD the prime hub for security clearance authority.

The current backlog of unprocessed background investigations -- more than 700,000 according to the NBIB officials -- has generated outrage in Congress and affected the ability of agencies and contractors to obtain security clearances, with many feds and contractors reporting wait times of 12-18 months just to obtain initial interim clearances.

The Trump administration has expressed a lack of faith that OPM and NBIB are up to task of digging the federal government out of its current hole, noting that since 2014 OPM has increased the price of background investigations by 40 percent while wait times have tripled. In January, the Government Accountability Office added the security process to its list of high-risk government programs and questioned whether NBIB had an adequate plan to reduce the current backlog.

Given that OPM was already losing 70 percent of background investigation volume through the transfer of DOD personnel, the administration determined there was no rationale for OPM keeping authority over the remaining thirty percent.

NBIB Director Charles Phalen has repeatedly defended the agency's work, arguing that the loss of contractor USIS, which officials estimate accounted for 60 percent of its investigative capacity, following the 2015 OPM hack is largely responsible for the current backlog. The office has pleaded with Congress for more resources to improve the situation.

In April Bill Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said the Office of Director of National Intelligence was working on a series of changes to the current security clearance process over the next few months that would refine and condense the number of questions investigators asked and de-emphasize previous threat indicators like holding a certain amount of debt.

An ODNI official told FCW June 21 that the office has since issued further guidance to federal agencies on how to handle the front end of the background investigation process. While the guidance is not public, the official said in an email, "the measures represent a collaborative risk management decision to clarify and adjust certain elements of the process used for background investigations."

Defense officials have been touting their increased reliance on automated tools and newer technologies to replace some of the more manual processes and time intensive field visits used in background investigations that experts say have largely gone unchanged over the past four decades. The Pentagon also plans to stand up a new single end-to-end IT shared service solution, called the National Background Investigative Service, to vet personnel throughout the federal government.

Director of Defense Intelligence Garry Reid has told Congress that programs like continuous monitoring and evaluation, which is designed to provide ongoing and real-time vetting of cleared personnel, can remove as much as 90 percent of the workload created through in-person field visits.

Several other promising pilots implemented over the past few years have leveraged big data analytics to scan dozens of publicly available and internal datasets for information on a candidate's criminal and financial status to flag threat indicators or signs of compromise.

This year, Reid told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the program has enrolled more than 1.1 million federal employees and contractors and could dramatically reduce or even eliminate the need for periodic reinvestigations.

Bradley P. Moss, an attorney who specializes in clearance and whistleblower cases, told FCW that the ability of technology to solve many of the complex and sticky issues that have bogged down the clearance investigation process is limited.

"There is only so much automated tools can do when it comes to the basics of background investigations, especially for first-time applicants," said Moss. "Automated tools can't interview references or verifiers, nor can they evaluate the sincerity and authenticity of verbal explanations provided by applicants."

Moss said the basics of clearance vetting will almost always remain a largely human endeavor, requiring time, patience and -- most importantly -- actual investigative experience.

"The question for DOD is whether they truly have a sufficiently deep reservoir of experienced investigators to do the ugly but vital investigative work," he said. "If they don't, the only way this current problem is fixed is if Congress has the vision to authorize significant long-term funding to enlarge DOD's manpower resources to fix the insane backlog."

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a senior staff writer at FCW, covering governmentwide IT policy, cybersecurity and a range of other federal technology issues.

Prior to joining FCW, Johnson was a freelance technology journalist. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, GoodCall News, Foreign Policy Journal, Washington Technology, Elevation DC, Connection Newspapers and The Maryland Gazette.

Johnson has a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Hofstra University and a Master's degree in public policy from George Mason University. He can be contacted at djohnson@fcw.com, or follow him on Twitter @derekdoestech.

Click here for previous articles by Johnson.


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