Adjudicating Background Investigations – Not an Easy Job

Security Clearance justice

Judge sitting at table via Bigstock

In an earlier article I focused on background investigations and how/what information was collected.  The other side of the process is the review and adjudication of the completed investigation.

The Intelligence Community (IC), Department of Defense (DoD) and Office of Personnel Management (OPM) have all set forth requirements that have to be met by those assigned as adjudicators before they are allowed to review background investigations and make adjudicative determinations.

Those assigned adjudicative duties are required have undergone either a Background Investigation (BI) or Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI) and are required to have completed specific training courses.  After completing the training, new adjudicators or those with less experience have senior adjudicators there to train, mentor, provide oversight, and to ensure the determinations made are sound and fall within established guidelines.  For the more experienced adjudicators, refresher training is completed in order to stay current with ever-changing security mandates and guidance.

Adjudicators hold an immense responsibility for making decisions that could impact national security and/or alter the life path of the individual being investigated.  Adjudicators are required to be unbiased and maintain a fair, impartial, and objective attitude toward the person being investigated and information being reviewed and adjudicated.  Common characteristics of persons assigned these duties include: maturity, integrity, honesty, discretion, sound logical thinking, and strong analytical processing and communication skills.

Adjudicative guidelines established by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), in coordination with OPM, form the basic framework that adjudicators use to make determinations, and depending upon the position risk level and sensitivity, may consider one, two, or all three of the criteria below in making a decision:

  • Credentialing Decisions: a credentialing decision considers whether or not an individual is eligible for long-term access to Federally-controlled facilities and/or information systems.
  • Suitability Decisions: a suitability decision concerns “an individual’s character or conduct that may have an impact on the integrity or efficiency of the service.”
  • National Security Decisions: a national security decision establishes a reasonable expectation that the person’s appointment or eligibility for access to classified information would or would not be clearly consistent with the interests of national security.

Some agencies may have additional adjudicative criteria that have a direct nexus to specific agency missions, e.g. Customs and Border Patrol, Drug Enforcement Agency, IRS.  Each agency has their own adjudicators who review completed background investigations and make favorable or unfavorable determinations.  These adjudicators usually reside in Security Offices or Human Resources Offices, depending on the organizational structure of the agency.

An adjudicator is an analyst who forms his or her conclusions and recommendations based on a review of all available information.  The process is not black and white and everyone sees and/or interprets information a bit differently.  In most cases, as standard procedure, a second set of eyes review each case that has issues or concerns.  Fundamental security principles dictate that all doubts concerning personnel having access to classified data shall be resolved in favor of national security.  Any uncertainty or doubt about the individual makes the decision that much harder.

The challenges for adjudicators reviewing investigations are many: high workload with pressure to meet timeliness requirements; not enough information in the investigation to get a “complete picture” when issues of concern exist; grey area conduct where a direct nexus to the position does not exist but is of serious concern; trying to determining intent in falsification or non-disclosure cases; dealing with pressure or political fall-out from management; getting supervisors to separate job performance from conduct issues; and knowing that decisions could affect the livelihood of an individual and that of their family.

Each investigation is reviewed on its own merits and no “one size fits all” approach can be used.  Adjudicators must make what is called a whole-person judgment based on all available information about an individual’s reliability and trustworthiness.  This includes all favorable and unfavorable information, circumstances that may mitigate the unfavorable information and circumstances that may affect the credibility of the information.  It should be noted that adjudicators see information about individuals that no one else sees.  Quite often, intentionally, or not, many individuals compartmentalize their lives and as a result, supervisors, co-workers, friends, and family may only see bits and pieces of the big picture and are surprised when adverse information about someone they thought they knew is revealed in a background investigation comes to light.

Being an adjudicator is a tough job and is not one of the more favorably looked upon positions within an agency.  There will always be someone who disagrees with the adjudicative decision and as the subject matter expert, the adjudicator has the responsibility to present the concerns to management in a factual and impartial manner and put forth a sound recommendation.  Despite the various challenges, adjudicators are security professionals that work behind the scenes peering into the darker side of human nature while trying to do their best in making hard decisions and are an integral part of the overall security process.

Marko Hakamaa served in various military police positions with the United States Army worldwide for 22 years before retiring in 2006 as a Master Sergeant. Afterwards, he transitioned into the civilian workforce as a contractor background investigator for the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) before entering civil service as a Security Specialist in 2009.

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