The demographics of the cleared workforce have been shifting over the past several years. As times have changed and leaks have increased, so, too has the backlog of background investigations. The National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB) is nearly a year old. Some have argued the agency is moving too slow, but despite the criticism, NBIB is hoping some big changes will help it make a big dent in the backlog.
At this week’s Intelligence and National Security Alliance and AFCEA Intelligence Summit leaders from NBIB and the Defense Security Service were up front about the issues in the process, from the backlog, to the out-of-date adjudicative criteria.
The Federal Investigative Standards (FIS) and 13 adjudicative criteria have remained largely unchanged since 1947. At an annual gathering of facility security officers in June, NBIB Director Charles Phalen referred to the national security program as ‘like a 1947 Chrysler we’re still driving.’ (Point of order – if you want to get any updates about security clearance policy you have to hound these directors at conferences. I personally am just hoping it’s because they’re so backlogged they’ve reassigned all of their public affairs officers as investigators).
The Chrysler Phalen refers to is the 1947 National Security Act. It formulated the National Security Council and is the cornerstone of the personnel security program. The FIS were updated to a tier system in 2008 – that was the first significant update since 1953. Yes, you read that right. If you were applying for a security clearance in the Cold War era you could expect basically the same kind of investigation you’d receive today. Adjudicative criteria have been clarified, but the same basic standards – including criteria that virtually never result in clearance denial – remain on the books.
While Phalen has been focused on the process – making minor changes to the SF86, creating a new online system for clearance applications, and other process changes – the Defense Security Service is also looking at modernization from a broader context.
“What we truly need to do is we need to take a look at what those adjudicative standards are, and look at in today’s day and age what are the best sources of information that we can go to,” Payne said at the INSA/AFCEA Summit. “That’s the game changer, that’s the thing that can make a significant impact on a security clearance process. We have to take that step, we cannot continue to do things the way we are currently doing them.”
That’s welcome news for those involved with the background investigation process, from investigators to applicants. Previous efforts at improvement have been fairly minor. It seems the current leadership in DSS and NBIB understand real improvements require not just basic changes, but serious overhaul. Investigators today are hindered not just by the FIS, but by a process that requires them to take notes with a pen and paper.
This fall could usher in a new SF-86, next year a new application, but busting through the combined goals of reducing the backlog and reducing the number of leaks takes more than process changes. It will take a major, major overhaul. And if there was any administration where breaking something down and building something new might be possible, this is the one.