Congress catches up on security clearance modernization efforts in NDAA

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The annual defense policy bill took on security clearances in a big way this year, even if many of the provisions don’t represent necessarily novel or new concepts.

Instead, the National Defense Authorization Act, which the House passed earlier this week, codifies much of what the Trump administration is planning when it comes to modernizing a security clearance process.

“It is the sense of Congress that ensuring the trustworthiness and security of the workforce, facilities and information of the federal government is of the highest priority to national security and public safety,” the NDAA reads. “The president and Congress should prioritize the modernization of the personnel security framework to improve its efficiency, effectiveness and accountability.”

Ask executives from the defense and intelligence communities about this priority and they’d likely say they’re already on it.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and Defense Department have been discussing a sweeping overhaul of the existing suitability, credentialing and security clearance system, an initiative called “Trusted Workforce 2.0.” The president’s signature on a new national security memo, which is supposed to truly put the wheels in motion on these modernization activities, is apparently “imminent.”

Congress does, however, attempt to set some new, measurable goals on the administration’s plans for the security clearance process.

It wants just 10% of the cleared population to be subject to periodic reinvestigations by Dec. 2021, a goal that may be possible given the Trump administration’s stated plans to dramatically ramp up enrollment in continuous evaluation and vetting programs.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence is supposed to instruct agencies in the coming months to stop periodically investigating its clearance holders every five-to-10-years and instead move to continuous evaluation capabilities, ODNI has said. The Pentagon said earlier this month continuous evaluation enrollment should reach 3.6 million by the end of 2020, up significantly from the 1.4 million who are enrolled today.

To meet this goal, Congress wants to see government’s plan for ramping up continuous vetting programs and retiring periodic reinvestigations, and it wants industry in the loop as well.

Lawmakers have also instructed agencies to create an online portal, which agency human resources professionals and security clearance applicants can check to see their status in the investigative process.

ODNI should instruct agencies to build these portals by December 2023, according to the NDAA.

The goal is to give applicants, agencies and contractors more visibility into the security clearance process, which has long been a complaint in this space.

The NDAA also tasks the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency, a still relatively new organization, with reviewing its governance structure and budget. The bill tweaks the title of undersecretary of defense for intelligence to account for DCSA’s mission; the USDI is now the undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security.

The defense bill also gives DCSA a long list of reporting requirements, many of which were championed by Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.).

Beyond the usual reports on the security clearance backlog, timeliness, adjudications and reciprocity, DCSA will be busy examining seemingly everything about the existing vetting process — and the Trump administration’s plans to drastically change it.

The NDAA, for example, calls for a plan within 90 days that describes how government will reduce the security clearance inventory to steady state of roughly 200,000 by the end of 2020.

DCSA, however, will likely meet that goal before the report is due within 90 days. The security clearance backlog sat at 267,000 last month, and DCSA Director Charlie Phalen has said his agency should reach the steady state goal sometime in January.

Congress also wants written plans detailing the Performance Accountability Council’s plans to address reciprocity and insider threats, as well as a discussion of how agencies can integrate data gleaned from continuous vetting capabilities, insider threat programs and human resources information.

In addition, Congress also wants a review of the current questionnaire for national security positions, otherwise known as the SF-86, and the existing adjudicative standards and guidelines. That assessment must include, among other things, recommendations to:

  • Simplify the SF-86 and provide more customer support to applicants completing the questionnaire,
  • Use central hubs and remote techniques to support or replace field investigation work,
  • Build the capacity of the background investigation workforce, and
  • Replace periodic reinvestigations with continuous vetting techniques “in all appropriate circumstances.”

Again, all of these plans must be shared with cleared industry partners, according to the NDAA.

David Berteau, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, praised the provisions designed to bring more transparency to security clearance system.

“It puts an incentive in for improvement,” he said. “That’s Congress’ role, and industry benefits when we can see what’s going on.”

Lawmakers are also asking for more details — again, in the form of a written report — that examine the risks, benefits and costs of consolidating the number of security clearances from five to three, another one of the administration’s plans.

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