National Background Investigations Bureau Set for Slow Upstart

Intelligence

The Fiscal New Year is right around the corner. It’s the most wonderful time of the year. And since this Fiscal New Year’s Eve falls on a Friday, it’s going to be even more exciting than usual. Revelers can really unleash up and down the Mall and up The Hill, knowing they have the weekend to recover.

For cleared professionals—or those who hope to become cleared professionals—this Fiscal New Year’ Day is going to be even more exciting. On October 1, the new National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB) will open its doors and finally get the slow clearance process moving at a reasonable speed. Or maybe not.

CONGRESSIONAL CONCERNS

Back in May, Senators Claire McCaskill and John Tester sent a letter over to the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) acting director, Beth Cobert asking for some details on OPM’s transition to the NBIB. By mid-June, the Senators were looking for the basics, things like a timeline, costs, funding, budgets, organization. In August, the Senators sent a second, more urgent letter, noting that while the Senator’s staff’s received some slide shows (today’s equivalent of policy), they had not received formal answers to their question, so, as they wrote, they “remain concerned about the timing of the transition.” This time, McCaskill and Tester reiterated their previous request, but this time they meant business. They wanted to know, among other things, well, who’s in charge? Will OPM make the October 1 “self-imposed” deadline”? And if OPM doesn’t or can’t respond to this letter, then, well, then the Senators promised to put the NBIB on the “Government Accountability Office’s High-Risk report due to delays and backlogs in the security clearance process and a lack of basic capacities to function as an independent entity.” Ouch.

ALL’S WELL at NBIB

Thankfully, NBIB answered Congress’s calls on September 2 with some details, details shared, as well, with the audience at the early-September INSA-AFCEA National Security Summit. According to NBIB transition team leader Jim Onusko, OPM’s been working in close concert with the Department of Defense, with the Director of National Intelligence, with the Office of Management and Budget, and more. Additionally, while they may not know exactly who will be in charge, Onusko assured that the director will not be one of those old career civil servants but, rather, “a politically appointed director . . . .‘” Rotating political appointees are always more capable than civil servants with decades of leadership and professional experience under their belts. With elections on November 8, and inauguration not until the end of January, don’t expect to see an appointed director until mid- to late-February, perhaps even March.

WHAT WE KNOW

We know, according to Onusko, that the NBIB will achieve initial operating capability (IOT) by Fiscal New Year, and “with the help of DoD build out the infrastructure over time.” Exactly what IOT means in this case isn’t clear, and that Defense Information Systems Agency is just now starting to look for IT systems for the bureau. We’re not talking about a new version of MSWord. According to the RFI, “the all-encompassing IT applications, storage, security, services, operations, and support for the National Background Investigation Bureau . . . .”

We also have an ideal of what those “all-encompassing IT applications” will do. Federal News Radio’s Jason Miller lists 12 functional areas, which will include automated record checking that will “query applicant data against appropriate government and commercial databases [read, social networks, among others] to collect, analyze and validate data in order to produce reports that flag potential issues.” Additionally, the IT systems should facilitate collection and sharing of applicants’ information across defense and intelligence systems. Old security- and clearance-related documents will be transitioned into readable electronic formats, and applications may be submitted online.

The September 2 OPM letter to Congress explains that the bureau will “have 8,500 employees, including 3,000 feds and 5,500 contractors.” And here’s some good news: “OPM said it hired 400 new federal investigators in fiscal 2016 and plans to add another 200 in 2017.”

We’ll keep an eye on this one.

Ed Ledford enjoys the most challenging, complex, and high stakes communications requirements. His portfolio includes everything from policy and strategy to poetry. A native of Asheville, N.C., and retired Army Aviator, Ed’s currently writing speeches in D.C. and working other writing projects from his office in Rockville, MD. He loves baseball and enjoys hiking, camping, and exploring anything. Follow Ed on Twitter @ECLedford.