Trump will kick-start upcoming security clearance modernization with new national security memo

The next part of the Trump administration’s ongoing security clearance modernization efforts will come soon in the form of three highly-anticipated policy directives.

These policy directives will kick off the next phase of the administration’s multi-faceted Trusted Workforce 2.0 initiative, which first began as an effort to resolve a sky-high security clearance backlog and has since evolved to overhaul a decades-old, governmentwide personnel vetting system.

First will come a national security presidential memorandum (NSPM), which instructs the director of National Intelligence, as the security executive agent, and the director of the Office of Personnel Management, as the suitability and credentialing executive agent, to take a variety of measures to modernize the suitability, credentialing and security clearance process.

The memo is finished, and ODNI is awaiting Trump’s signature, Brian Dunbar, assistant director of security for the agency’s National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said in an interview with Federal News Network.

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“It’s an endorsement on the part of the president that this is needed,” he said. “That, to my understanding, is at the White House now, available for the president’s signature. I understand that his signature and issuance of that NSPM is imminent.”

Next, the security executive agent and the suitability and credentialing executive agent will issue an executive correspondence, which will direct agencies to stop conducting periodic reinvestigations of their clearance holders and move toward continuous vetting capabilities.

“It will provide departments and agencies authority to adopt an interim vetting process, to replace PRs, and continue to apply investigative reductions measures, which were approved in prior executive correspondences,” Dunbar said.

ODNI and OPM issued an executive correspondence back in June 2018, which described 15 measures that agencies could take to speed up the security clearance process.

Those measures are, in large part, how the National Background Investigations Bureau — now the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency — managed to dramatically slash its inventory of pending security clearances in about a year.

As of last week, the current backlog sits at 272,000 pending cases, Dunbar said.

Now with this forthcoming executive correspondence, those measures will be permanent, and agencies will receive specific instructions on how to begin using continuous vetting capabilities.

“There are going to be departments and agencies who have fairly robust continuous vetting programs,” Dunbar said. “Those will be, for example, [intelligence community] organizations. The Department of Defense is in a good place. There are other departments and agencies that aren’t there yet. They will need to continue to conduct investigations until such time that they’re ready from a continuous vetting capability.”

Third, the executive agents will release a “federal core vetting doctrine,” which will describe the main principles behind governmentwide vetting policy and practices.

These three policy directives, Dunbar said, will come out in quick succession one after the other.

Once these new policies are live, the ODNI will issue new sets of adjudicative guidelines and investigative standards. Subject matter experts have been developing these standards and guidelines, which ODNI anticipates will be released next year.

These standards will describe how all agencies will establish trust with employees and contractors. Every agency will uniformly apply the same standards to grant security clearances, which, as industry has bemoaned for years now, is far from the current reality.

Getting all agencies up to speed on a series of new investigative standards will, from the ODNI’s perspective, be a heavy lift.

“This is such a massive cultural change that we’re going to have to, from an enterprise standpoint, do a lot of training on how you apply these new standards and these guidelines in the future,” Dunbar said.

‘1-3-5’ Trusted Workforce model

The administration’s efforts to overhaul the suitability, credentialing and security clearance system started in earnest last March, when the ODNI several brainstorm sessions with agencies, industry and other organizations and thought leaders.

What emerged from those discussions is what the ODNI is calling its “1-3-5 model,” Dunbar said.

The model outlines one governmentwide personnel system, three background investigative tiers and five “vetting scenarios.”

First, the goal is to establish a single personnel vetting system that’s designed with mobility in mind, Dunbar said.

“Traditionally the national security vetting and the suitability and credentialing vetting had been rather stove-piped,” he said. “This new model aligns those two, what had been disparate vetting activities, into one.”

In addition, the ODNI is planning to cut the number of background investigative tiers from five to three.

In the future, tier one will encompass “low risk” cases, Dunbar said. Tier two will include “moderate risk” or secret security clearance cases. And tier three will consist of high risk or top secret clearances.

“This will … speed up the process, reduce the complexity that exists with the current five investigative tiers, eliminate repetitive checks that exist in the system now and enable us to use our resources better,” Dunbar said of the investigative tier consolidation.

And perhaps the biggest change will come in how government will establish trust with an individual and continuously evaluate that person’s trust over a period of time through five unique “vetting scenarios.”

  • Initial vetting: will establish a baseline of trust with an individual who is just joining government or applying for a security clearance. It’ll turn “outsiders into insiders,” Dunbar said.
  • Continuous vetting: will replace the traditional five-or-ten-year periodic reinvestigations with a model that constantly identifies and flags risks for a trusted insider.
  • Upgrading an individual’s level of vetting: will be commensurate with an employee or contractor’s move to a position with higher-level risk.
  • Reestablishing trust: will restore trust with an individual who has a break in service and hasn’t been subject to continuous vetting.
  • Transfer of trust: will allow a trusted individual to take his or her security clearance with him from one agency to another.

The goal is to give both employees and contractors more flexibility to move around government — and in and out of the private sector, ODNI said.

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