Will New Background Investigations Office End the Logjam?
By Dr. Brian Blodgett
Faculty Member, Homeland Security, American Military University
President Trump recently signed an executive order transferring responsibility for background investigations to the Department of Defense (DOD). But will the move make a difference in reducing the massive backlog of over 500,000 applications that take on average of 468 days for a full Top Secret clearance? That’s more than four times longer than the target completion date.
The executive order calls for changing the name of the DOD’s Defense Security Service (DSS) to the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA). In addition, the entire National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB), currently under the civilian Office of Personnel Management (OPM), will be transferred to the new DCSA, which will become the chief security clearance office. The DCSA will absorb the staff and the resources of the NBIB on June 24, as well as the backlog of pending security checks.
Executive Order Removes OPM from Background Checks Altogether
Congress gave the DoD the responsibility for meeting its own background clearance needs in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDA), which comprised nearly 70 percent of all clearances. The remaining 30 percent of clearances for civilian agencies were to stay with the NBIB. However, the executive order moves all background clearances to DCSA and removes the OPM from the clearance process altogether.
The executive order has long been anticipated and planned for when the 2018 NDA Act was passed in late 2017. The DoD began planning to realign the security clearance mission last June. Pentagon officials believed then that taking responsibility for all background investigations, military, civilian and contractor, would take up to three years.
However, the White House signaled the transfer of all security clearance cases to the DCSA in a recently undated report titled Delivering Government Solutions in the 21st Century. According to the report, the Trump administration concluded that it was necessary to consolidate the background investigation program through a complete transfer to the DoD.
Main Roadblock for Federal Employment Is the Lengthy Security Clearance Process
The report further recognizes that one of the main roadblocks to employment in the federal government is the lengthy security clearance process. “The Administration recognizes that background investigations are critical to enabling national security missions and ensuring public trust in the workforce across the Government,” the report said. “Data breaches, delays in background investigation and security clearance approvals, and outdated paper-based processes all erode trust in the Government.”
OPM’s Security Breaches Exposed Millions to Potential Theft of Personal Data
Former President Obama ordered the creation of the NBIB in 2016 to replace the OPM’s Federal Investigative Services after the FIS suffered two historic breaches in 2015 that resulted in tens of millions of individuals having their sensitive information stolen. One breach involved 21.5 million individuals whose Social Security numbers were hacked from OPM databases holding background investigation information. An earlier breach resulted in the compromise of 4.2 million employees’ and former employees’ personal data, including names, birthdates, home addresses and Social Security numbers.
With the creation of the NBIB, the DoD assumes control of the design, development, security, and operation of the background investigations technology formerly under OPM management. At that time, the White House believed that this dual approach would be successful as OPM would maintain the manual work while DoD would assume technical oversight. ”
The Future May Hold Sweeping Changes in the Clearance Process
Under the new alignment, the Secretary of Defense not only will lead efforts to prevent another security breach, but may also oversee sweeping changes in the clearance process. According to a recently introduced Senate bill, Modernizing the Trusted Workforce for the 21st Century, the goal is for most Top Secret clearances to be completed in fewer than 90 days and Secret clearances in fewer than 30 days; currently takes about 234 days. If this bill becomes law, the DCSA might need to implement significant changes to reduce the time needed to complete clearances by over 75 percent.
The DSS had already begun expanding its continuous evaluation/vetting (CE/CV) process, which screens applicants who have received their initial clearances by scouring open-source information for signs of potential security risks. This procedure would replace the normal five-year re-evaluation check for individuals with Top Secret clearances and 10 years for those with Secret clearances.
The CE/CV process involves automatically pulling and analyzing any information on criminal, financial and substance abuse issues more regularly than the current system. That system involved investigators – federal officials or contract employees – spending considerable time making inquiries via emails, phone calls, or in-person interviews. Another asset for the CE/CV process is social media. But this is challenging due to the massive amount of information available and the potential for error by relying on social media as indicators of personal habits.
However, according to the DoD, using the CE/CV process for low-risk periodic reinvestigations will reduce the number of pending clearances and allow DCSA to focus on more complex cases.
The new agency might also work with intelligence agencies in 2020 to reframe the “whole person concept” and the 13 adjudicative guidelines into a more nimble process with fewer guidelines and a new process designed to decrease the time it takes to receive a security clearance. That would further decrease the current lengthy backlog.
Will the changes make a difference? Or will they validate a comment by the former Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who observed that “Simply creating a new government entity doesn’t solve the problem. The administration needs to undertake meaningful reforms to protect citizens’ most sensitive personal information.”
If the CE/CV process lives up to expectations, the future looks bright for those awaiting their clearances. In addition, the nation will have a tool to revoke those of individuals who pose a risk to our nation’s security.
About the Author
Dr. Brian Blodgett is an alumnus of American Military University who graduated in 2000 with a master’s of arts in military studies and a concentration in land warfare. He retired from the U.S. Army in 2006 as a Chief Warrant Officer after serving over 20 years, first as an infantryman and then as an intelligence analyst. He is a 2003 graduate of the Joint Military Intelligence College where he earned a master’s of science in strategic intelligence with a concentration in South Asia. He graduated from Northcentral University in 2008, earning a doctorate in philosophy in business administration with a specialization in homeland security.
Dr. Blodgett has been a part-time faculty member, a full-time faculty member and a program director. He is currently a full-time faculty member in the School of Security and Global Studies and teaches homeland security and security management courses.