The Defense Department is trying to persuade lawmakers that it has both the tools and the expertise to resume responsibility for processing security clearances for its own personnel.
Defense Secretary James Mattis in August approved a plan that would allow DoD to use a series of IT and data systems that track employee behavior and performance. The department believes those systems are now mature enough to handle new investigative cases for DoD personnel only.
The department could be ready as early as January to begin this work, Garry Reid, director of defense intelligence, told members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Government Operations Subcommittee.
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The National Background Investigations Bureau, which currently handles 95 percent of all federal security clearance work, would continue to process existing DoD investigations. The Defense Department would simply assume responsibility for new background checks. It would still continue to design, build and operate NBIB’s IT systems, as it promised when the Office of Personnel Management first announced plans for the new background investigation agency in January 2016.
“Our plan is to alleviate the burden on the backlog in the near-term by shifting that work into an alternative process focusing on the secret-level investigations,” Reid said at a Wednesday hearing. “We submit about 700,000 investigative cases to NBIB every year. About two-thirds of those are at the secret level, initial or reinvestigation.”
The decision to transfer the work may happen quickly, as House and Senate members are supposed to go to conference on the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act in the next few weeks. The Senate’s version of the bill would authorize DoD to process security clearances for its own personnel.
This comes after the 2017 NDAA charged the department to develop a plan for how it might transfer security clearances for DoD personnel from the NBIB to the Defense Security Services (DSS). The NDAA mandate came as the Office of Personnel Management stood up the NBIB about a year ago.
Yet a few members of Congress are skeptical.
Both committee Republicans and Democrats said they feared that shifting DoD’s share of security clearances would undo what little progress NBIB has made on a hefty backlog.
Yet NBIB’s current inventory of 704,000 pending investigations has created turmoil for DoD, Reid said. NBIB did stabilize the backlog in the past 10 weeks, the agency’s director, Charlie Phalen, said.
But as Phalen emphasized, NBIB needs more federal and contracted investigators. It has 6,900 investigators now.
“We have commitments from all four of our suppliers to continue building that capacity to the extent possible,” Phalen said. “If they are able to meet the goals that they have set for us, it will take approximately three years or so to bring down that inventory number to a manageable level that we want, perhaps even a little longer. That’s without any other intervention.”
Phalen said his estimation was “optimistic,” and it could take five years or longer to bring the NBIB backlog back to a “steady state” of 180,000 pending investigations.
Yet Phalen said continuous evaluation and similar programs would also allow the agency to handle background checks, especially periodic reinvestigations, more quickly.
DoD said it now has multiple, mature data and IT systems in place that the department currently uses to track employee performance and behavior. Now, DoD wants to fuse those systems together to evaluate current clearance holders.
Among those systems are insider threat programs at 43 defense components and a continuous evaluation program that DoD has been testing on 500,000 clearance holders. Soon, the department will have 1 million employees under its continuous evaluation program.
Both Reid and Phalen agree: continuous evaluation programs can — and should — replace much of the work that NBIB is currently doing to perform periodic reinvestigations of clearance holders every five-to-10 years.
Yet DoD said it has those capabilities ready to deploy for its own personnel now, and it’s seeking approval from government executive agents to begin using these very systems to meet federal suitability requirements.
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“We are not using these systems now as systems of record to complete investigations, and neither, I believe, is NBIB,” Reid said. “We have data available. We have employed methods of automated records checking. We have not implemented those as a system that can grant one a completed investigation. That is the step that we want to take.”
Taking this action would alleviate current pressure from NBIB and the Office of Personnel Management, Reid reiterated.
Subcommittee Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), moderated what eventually turned into a turf war over the federal security clearance process.
“Moving something from one bucket of the government to another bucket of the government does not necessarily create more efficiency, and generally, it does not,” he said. “I am skeptical that we are going to get all these unbelievable efficiencies just by moving it from one government agency to another. We’re going to do is end up with duplicative services, and I’m all about shared services. … But what I’m not about is allowing DoD and OPM to do the same thing, when Mr. Phalen, you said that the basic problem that you have is getting talent to actually do these checks.”
Meadows pushed DoD on nearly every aspect of the debate. He questioned whether DoD’s plan would truly be able to perform investigations more quickly and efficiently than NBIB.
“Would you submit DoD is a model of efficiency?” Meadows asked.
In DoD’s mind, the current NBIB backlog exists because the agency still primarily relies on fieldwork to perform background checks.
“Our rationale is if you get rid of the reliance on the fieldwork, even increased fieldworkers [will] still have more fieldwork,” Reid said. “The DoD objective is to reduce as much as possible, at the 90-plus percent level, the work required by a field investigator.”
Yet for Phalen, fieldwork is still a crucial part of the security clearance review process. DoD doesn’t have the same field resources that NBIB has, he added.
“We have both an electronic and a geographic reach across this country,” Phalen said. “For any initial investigation at whatever level, tier 1 through tier 5, we have the ability to reach out in real or near-real time to find information. They don’t have that capacity today.”
DoD has long been frustrated by OPM’s handling of the federal security clearance process. The Defense Department processed its own security clearances until 2005, when OPM created the Federal Investigative Services (FIS) and took over the work.
But for DoD, responsibility transfer would only make sense.
“More than 90 percent of NBIB secret cases are DoD,” Reid said. “This is very much a DoD issue.”