The White House announced the creation of a new agency to take over security clearance background investigations. The National Background Investigations Bureau will report to the Office of Personnel Management, the agency currently responsible for federal background investigations, but its IT operations will now fall under the Department of Defense
“This entity will have a considerable amount of operational autonomy and will be elevated in profile, compared to the current existing structure,” Michael Daniel, special assistant to the President and cybersecurity coordinator of the National Cybersecurity Council, said during a Jan. 22 call.
The announcement comes after months of speculation as to what course of action would follow a data security breach at OPM that left the personal information of more than 20 million compromised. The move to create a new agency comes on the heels of a 90-day review of the security clearance process, ordered by the White House following the breach. The President will nominate a director for the new agency. OPM’s Federal Investigative Services (FIS) will be moved under the new director/agency.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s a surprise that the NBIB was stood up,” said Charles Sowell, senior vice president of Salient CRGT. Sowell has also served as Deputy Assistant Director for Special Security and as a senior advisor to the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), advising the DNI on personnel security matters. “I think that it’s the culmination of a lot of years of hard work from a lot of people across government furthering and advancing security clearance reform initiatives. Because having a bureau that focuses specifically on background investigations with a political appointee at the head, really brings some gravitas to the organization, and I think that’s really a good move.”
Department of Defense officials said they were willing to take on the job of keeping background investigation data secure. The 2017 White House Budget will request $95 million to build the new cyber and IT systems. The DoD CIO will design the new IT systems, which will be managed by the Defense Information Systems Agency. The decision to move control over to DoD will likely mean new partnerships with private industry, as well.
“I’m excited about the opportunity to support DoD in that development,” said Sowell. “Because DoD has a pretty strong reputation in agile software development, data analytics, and mobility, and those are some of the key qualifications that Salient CRGT brings to the table, in addition to our exceptional understanding and experience with the OPM federal investigative service’s systems that are currently in existence. I think the opportunity for industry to support DoD in this endeavor is good, and DoD needs industry to up their probability of success.”
Critics and Timelines
While many are optimistic that this is the right move, not everyone is a fan of the proposal.
“Simply creating a new government entity doesn’t solve the problem,” said Rep. Jason Chaffez (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, in a statement. “Today’s announcement seems aimed only at solving a perception problem rather than tackling the reforms needed to fix a broken security clearance process.”
White House officials declined to comment on a timeline, but officials expect to make some progress in 2016. It remains unclear what, if anything, will change when it comes to the make-up of the investigative workforce. Prior to the announcement some in the background investigation community called for a move to single-source investigations and a contract investigator workforce that reports exclusively to the newly created agency. No matter the make-up of the workforce, Sowell says he expects the creation of NBIB to energize investigators and increase the credibility of an entity that has been in the hotseat for some time
“Establishing the NBIB, which will represent a workforce that delivers about 95 percent of the background investigations across government, gives it a focus and a new lease on life that will create some energy among their own workforce and give the organization the chance to possibly repair some relationships that might have been damaged in the past several years in some of these high profile cases,” Sowell noted.