White House names first director of new security clearance bureau

The Obama administration on Thursday named a career personnel security expert to lead the government’s new National Background Investigation Bureau, the semi-independent office that will officially take over responsibility for processing security clearances on Monday.

Charlie Phalen worked most recently as the vice president for corporate security at Northrop Grumman. Before that, he spent 30 years in the federal government, beginning as a line-level background investigator and eventually becoming the CIA’s director of security the assistant director for the FBI’s security division.

Charles Phalen
Charles Phalen

Phalen will lead a workforce of about 8,500 employees, about 2,500 of whom are civilians moving over from the soon-to-be-former Federal Investigative Service within the Office of Personnel Management. The remainder are contractors.

He said one of his first priorities would be to speed up the security clearance process, which currently takes an average of 120 days for secret clearances compared to a goal of 40 days.

“I am fully aware of the backlog in background investigations, and we’ll be working immediately to improve the timeliness. That will be a priority for me and the entire NBIB team,” he said. “Looking to the future as we start this new entity up, we’re going to be focusing on establishing a law enforcement liaison office to improve the coordination with state and local law enforcement offices to get criminal record data, and we will reorganize our field operation function in a way that consolidates the management of the federal and the contract investigation functions and enhances the existing national security and counterintelligence activity.”

Another of NBIB’s first orders of business will be to stand up a Federal Investigative Resource Enterprise (FIRE) to fund more automation and management of the records that background investigators rely on to make decisions on security clearances. Currently, much of that information has to be manually gathered by field investigators, one contributing factor to the lag time in clearances.

“In some cases the information is already automated. In others, it is not available in automated form inside the places where those records are kept,” said Beth Cobert, the acting director of the Office of Personnel Management. “Fixing that takes funding and effort and resources on the part of our law enforcement partners and there are differences in jurisdictions in terms of what information they keep and how they keep it. As part of the Navy Yard review, we created a joint task force to improve this, but we need to work on our side to be able to ingest that information into our new systems.”

Much of that work will fall within the responsibility of a new NBIB law enforcement liaison, a senior executive position OPM has begun recruiting for but has not yet hired.

“That will be a focal point within the organization to strengthen these relationships to understand what law enforcement needs from us and what we need from them,” Cobert said. “It’s a critical priority for the timeliness and quality of our investigations to get this right.”

As federal officials announced earlier this year, the Defense Department will be responsible for building a new IT infrastructure to replace the aging systems OPM currently uses to store records and process security clearances.

Terry Halvorsen, the department’s chief information officer said the Defense Information Systems Agency had already started to build a secure IT backbone to support the new National Background Investigation System (NBIS). He said DISA and the Joint Force Headquarters-DoD Information Networks will monitor and secure the system, which will include features intended to make sure that no one person has access to all of the records within it.

The continuing resolution Congress approved Wednesday night includes funding that will allow DoD to begin building the security infrastructure.

“We got $95 million in the CR, and the authority to begin the new starts, which is very important,” Halvorsen said. “That money is there, we will begin executing it on Monday, and we will begin to rapidly start fielding these systems.”