OPM lays groundwork for security clearance reform, as processing times grow longer

Federal employees and contractors waiting more than 100 days for their security clearance may not believe that the administration made some progress in 2016 for improving the process.

But the latest report on Performance.gov shows the administration spent the year putting several key building blocks in place to implement future security clearance reforms and insider threat programs.

The end-to-end process to finish a security clearance investigation during the last quarter of the 2016 ran longer than any other time during the year and fell well short of the administration’s target goals.

It took an average of 166 days to complete an initial investigation, 246 days to finish an initial investigation at the top secret level and 222 days for a periodic reinvestigation, according to a fourth-quarter update on Performance.gov.

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In the 2015, feds waited an average of 95 days for initial secret investigation and 179 days on average for a top secret clearance.

Though quarterly progress reports show wait times stretched longer in 2016, it may be a reflection that things have to get worse before they get better as the administration lays the groundwork for the new security clearance process.

The administration spent 2016 standing up the National Background Investigations Bureau, the new agency tasked with leading the overhaul.

In September, the Security Executive Agent and Suitability Agent issued a new memo that sets up business rules explaining how the new IT system will make most decisions on secret and top secret level cases.

“The implementation of these business rules will improve efficiency and enhance reciprocal acceptance of adjudicative decisions across the executive branch by providing a consistent and approved list of criteria for evaluating cases,” the Performance.gov report said.

In October, key stakeholders on the Performance Accountability Council (PAC) approved the Enterprise Information Technology strategy, or the overall plan for the NBIB’s new IT systems for the next five years, the report said.

In addition, the PAC wrote new training plans for background check adjudicators, so that they can better find and uncover mistakes or false information in a subject’s clearance application.

And the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is on track to meet a December deadline for establishing a new policy for reporting security concerns through the proper chain of command in a timely way.

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The administration said it has taken steps to move toward continuous vetting, including in May when James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, signed off on Security Executive Agent Directive (SEAD) 5, permitting agencies to collect and evaluate valuable publicly available social media information as part of vetting for national security eligibility.

Charles Allen, senior intelligence adviser for the Intelligence and National Security Alliance and a former undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at the Homeland Security Department, said he’s confident that the groundwork will continue until 2017.

“NBIB has energy, funding, new initiatives and it’s setting very ambitious goals,” he said. “Usually when there’s a transition, it sometimes slows reform processes like this. I see…given the money over the next year, things should continue. The initiatives underway should continue without any diminution of effort.”

Allen said NBIB should also be able to handle the influx of security investigations that will come in soon as new political appointees need clearances at the start of Donald Trump’s administration.

“The real challenge is not the new administration,” he said. “We’ll be able to manage that. I’m sure the NBIB and others will be able to meet that near-term surge. It’s this long-term problem that has plagued government for two decades.”

The Office of Personnel Management in September finished hiring 400 new investigators, which the progress report said is one of many solutions aimed at reducing the backlog of unfinished security clearance applications.

OPM also started its contract with four new suppliers for additional background investigators Dec. 1.

Charlie Phalen, the new director of the NBIB, has said the backlog is a priority, but reducing the time it takes to complete an investigation is the agency’s top focus.

Insider threat

Some agencies have yet to make a January 2015 deadline to set up criteria for an insider threat program, and others haven’t reached a December 2015 deadline to achieve initial operating capability on those programs.

Agencies were supposed to achieve full operating capability by December of this year, according to Performance.gov.

“If only one agency — out of the 90-plus subject to the requirement — is not in full compliance, our reporting will reflect ‘missed’ or ‘at risk,’ since we are only as strong as our weakest link,” the progress report said. “A great deal of individual progress has been made, and the [National Insider Threat Task Force] continues to work diligently in partnership with departments and agencies.”

In the past, the administration has said that cultural, legal and resource questions are the main hold-ups for some agencies who haven’t yet begun to implement initial requirements for insider threat programs.

But other agencies — the report doesn’t specify which ones — are making progress on their own.

Stakeholders in the administration, for example, trained 31 people from 24 agencies on Insider Threat hub operations, the report said. Nearly 500 people have been trained so far on those best practices. The administration also reviewed eight agencies’ programs to gauge their organization’s progress and collect feedback from the workforce.

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