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The National Background Investigations Bureau said it’s working “daily and almost hourly” with the Defense Department and Defense Security Service to prepare for the inevitable transfer of the governmentwide security clearance portfolio.
DoD and DSS have worked with NBIB to develop a joint transfer plan and are working on a detailed, step-by-step blueprint that will describe every aspect of the transfer. DSS Director Dan Payne is standing up a joint transition team within his agency to implement those plans.
Payne has been working with Charlie Phalen, NBIB’s director, to integrate the OPM senior staff into DoD.
“Below the senior staff levels, I know that employees of both agencies are concerned about their jobs, their duty locations [and] their change in command,” Payne told the House Armed Services subcommittee on oversight and investigations. “I am committed to minimizing the disruption to both field workforces, the people on the ground doing the work and accomplishing our mission. Our approach will do just that.”
Both agencies have asked for advice from mergers and integration experts to help with the transfer, said Garry Reid, DoD’s director of defense intelligence.
The transfer process itself should take a year, he added.
DoD acknowledged the transfer won’t happen overnight, and it won’t be easy. Senior officials are integrating two large enterprises into one — while making improvements and upgrades to the security clearance process itself.
“We’ve heard it often, that there’s some skepticism that we’re able to do this,” Reid said. “I can only tell you that we have support from the highest levels within our department, from the secretary and the deputy secretary and my boss, the undersecretary. The chief management officer and many other principles within the Pentagon are focused on this issue. We have strong support from OMB [and] from [Margaret] Weichert, who’s also the acting OPM director, to help this through [and] our executive agent officers at the DNI and at OPM. We are all pulling on this rope together.”
As Federal News Network has previously reported, both DoD and NBIB have been preparing to reorganize and merge personnel and resources into an entirely new entity housed within the Pentagon. Defense officials have said the new entity will incorporate both NBIB and DSS in their entities, along with DoD’s Consolidated Adjudications Facility, some additional defense counterintelligence resources and others.
But DoD can’t merge these disparate pieces together until President Donald Trump authorizes the move with an executive order. The EO, which is supposed to give Secretary Jim Mattis authority the execute the entire security clearance mission and set timelines for conducting the transfer itself, has been pushed back for weeks, if not months. The Trump administration had initially considered moving the entire security clearance portfolio earlier this year but only released a broad plan to do so with the Office of Management and Budget’s reorganization proposal in June.
But if the House committee was looking for answers to a long list of questions that many in the trusted workforce community have about the pending transfer, they didn’t get much more clarity.
Rep. Sean Moulton (D-Mass.), the oversight and investigations subcommittee ranking member, said he had concerns about the transfer’s impacts on OPM staff and was “skeptical” of DoD’s plans.
Moulton got reassurances from both agencies that they’re working together. But no one explained how OPM will handle the financial implications that NBIB’s move will likely have on the organization, and no member asked that direct question. Just a few committee members held court with NBIB and DoD officials for 25 minutes, before House votes abruptly forced an end to Wednesday’s hearing.
Progress on security clearance backlog
While DoD and NBIB wait for the executive order, both agencies said they’re making progress on the backlog of pending background investigations.
DoD, which assumed responsibility for its own security clearances this year, has reduced its own investigative backlog by 20 percent since July, Reid said.
Most of DoD’s progress came after the security executive agent and suitability and credentialing executive agent finalized new procedures for periodic reinvestigations over the summer. The Pentagon is running short, initial checks on some clearance holders who are due for secret-level periodic reinvestigations. If no red flags come back, DoD has been directly enrolling them in continuous evaluation, rather than performing a full-blown reinvestigation, Reid said.
“We’ve built that now,” he said. “The challenge is to scale up for the full department. We’re in the early months of that.”
Payne said the pending transfer won’t hinder the “great progress” NBIB has made to date in whittling down the security clearance backlog.
The current inventory itself will dip just below 600,000 in the coming days, Phalen said. That’s a 17 percent reduction since April, when the backlog stood at 725,000 investigative matters.
Still, Phalen reminded lawmakers that total backlog of 600,000 doesn’t describe the number of federal and industry employees waiting for a security clearance.
NBIB has 275,000 pending initial security clearances, and 110,000 people have interim clearances to date, Phalen said.
The agency has made this progress, Phalen said, for a few reasons.
First, NBIB has managed to hire more federal and contractor investigators, about 8,800 in total.
The agency has also introduced new business improvement processes over the past year. Robotics processing automation has helped NBIB reduce its inventory of pending field work by 45 percent and the overload workload by 2 million hours a year, Phalen said.
In addition, the agency has deployed 20 bots to streamline the current security clearance process.
“This effort will automate manual, time intensive activities to increase productivity, reduce the waste and improve our timeliness,” Phalen said. “We’ve also developed and implemented an approach to rapidly assess completed cases based on a predictive model to expedite case closure to all of our customers.”
More upgrades to the security clearance process are coming, as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and other leaders on the Performance Accountability Council finalize changes under the “trusted workforce 2.0” initiative. The ODNI has been working with agencies, industry, academia and others to find ways to drastically update the security clearance process for a modern era.