Those involved in the security clearance process understand how long it takes to reform the security clearance process. Director of the National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB) Charles Phalen confirmed that challenge at the annual NCMS Conference this week in Anaheim, Calif. Speaking to an audience of facility security professionals, Phalen referred to the current national security program as, ‘like a 1947 Chrysler we’re still driving.’
That Chrysler is the 1947 National Security Act. It formulated the National Security Council and is the cornerstone of the personnel security program. An example of the longevity of security clearance policy are the 13 Adjudicative Criteria. SEAD 4 recently pushed forward some major (and a few significant) changes to the guidelines, but the same 13 criteria issued in 1995 remain unchanged.
“Everything we do is based on a policy,” said Phalen. “We don’t make that stuff up, someone else made that stuff up for us years ago.”
Just because the background investigation process is bound by policies that are decades old and may take years to change, doesn’t mean the NBIB, just 8 months and 22 days old as of today, plans to conduct business as usual, noted Phalen.
Business Process Engineering uncovered 57 pain points in the background investigation process, noted Donna McLeod, NBIB Executive Program Manager, during an NCMS conference break out session. NBIB is already getting to work addressing some of those.
Among the immediate changes? Background investigors are now authorized to conduct some interviews via phone, and even conduct Personal Subject Interviews (PSIs) via video teleconference for applicants who are deployed or serving in an overseas location.
Many of those pain points focus on improving aspects of data management, records keeping and information technology. Information systems are the underpinning behind the background investigations process, Phalen noted. But that doesn’t mean security clearance reform is focused only on improving IT, Phalen emphasized.
“Despite all of this automation effort that exists, this is still a people intensive business,” said Phalen.
The Three Prongs of Personnel Security
Phalen noted personnel security generally comes down to three things:
- Do I trust the people who are working for me?
- Do I trust that I’m operating in a safe and secure facility?
- Do I trust my information?
That first pillar (people) is both the most important and often the hardest to calibrate, he noted. Records keeping will play some role in that, he noted, making the comparison between your background investigation and a permanent record. Right now, two issues complicate the ability to maintain comprehensive records around security clearance holders – IT capacity, and the current SF86 application itself. The SF86 is currently being updated, with a new SF86 going into affect later this summer. Consolidating all of the IT systems that feed into eQIP was a challenging process, Phalen noted.
While eQIP will remain the system used to process new background investigations, NBIB is setting the stage for a completely new system – eAPP – which will be ready for release sometime next year, most likely. eAPP is intended to be more user friendly and intuitive, taking into account some of the product enhancements you’d find in shopping online, such as the ability to ‘remember’ previously entered data, as well as preventing users from entering incomplete or incorrect data, noted NBIB officials.
From continuous evaluation to new insider threat training requirements for industry, Phalen noted security professionals today face a lot of changes, and a lot of challenges. At the heart of a lot of this is data – “how do I gather, collect, document, and register information that will be usable,” he said. “It has to be discover-able, and it has to be actionable.”
The elephant in the room
Phalen largely talked around the biggest concern facing most industry security professionals – the near 500 day wait for a TS security clearance investigation. Phalen reinforced the work NBIB is accomplishing – closing 50,000 cases every week. Like other NBIB officials had noted earlier in the week, NBIB is also counting on the ability to bring on new investigators to help with the current clearance backlog.
As of June 1, NBIB has 6,487 background investigators, and the goal is to have 7,285 by October 1, 2017 said Christy Wilder, NBIB Chief of Staff.
Will that number of background investigators be able to make progress on the current backlog and improve the quality of investigations? Probably not on a 1947 Chrysler policy. But it seems Phalen is hoping a new set of tires and the right driver at the wheel will at least get the car on the freeway.