Last week the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved legislation which would require the National Background Investigations Bureau to provide quarterly reports on security clearance processing times.
The Secret Act of 2017 has three main provisions – reinstate the requirement to provide quarterly updates on processing times, explain the process for conducting background investigations in the executive branch (they’re looking at you, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump), and report on the duplication of resources if a proposal to move investigations for defense department personnel back to the Defense Security Service (DSS) is approved.
If approved, Congress will have effectively passed legislation to a) do something the NBIB is already doing, b) do something that an Internet search could clarify, and c) do something it should have done itself in the first place.
Congress is right about one thing – knowing current clearance processing times is important for both government and industry representatives trying to deal with the backlog. But you can make a strong argument that reporting requirements won’t do anything for the backlog itself. Performance.gov, the government system for tracking programs including the personnel security program, was shuttered in June as a part of the executive branch’s desire to reduce the size of government and reduce the administrative burden on federal agencies.
Was getting rid of quarterly reporting requirements really helpful to reducing government redundancy? Debatable. Will new reporting requirements have any impact on the backlog? Nope. It’s not as though the NBIB is sitting around, embarrassed about the status of its processing times, but now that they’re publicly released it will finally do the work required to reduce timelines. If OPM had a functioning public affairs office, this information would be available via a simple query to their press office, and could be easily published that way.
The backlog was born out of budget issues, the OPM hack, the downfall of background investigations contractor USIS and the risk of insider threats from Edward Snowden to Aaron Alexis. It wasn’t born out of a lack of awareness of how long this process takes.
Current clearance processing times are a national security risk. But we know the processing times and the size of the backlog. Lack of awareness is not the issue. Lack of resources and bad policy may be.
You’ve Been Trumped
The second provision in the legislation has nothing to do with improving things for the security clearance workforce, but everything to do with trying to oust Donald Trump’s kids from their official roles. Congress seeks information on the investigations and adjudications of Executive Branch security clearances, but they’re forgetting that Donald Trump can give security clearances to whomever he likes.
Authority over the national security program, including personnel security, is born out of the executive branch. The FBI traditionally conducts those investigations and they are adjudicated within the White House. The issues with Jared Kushner’s SF86 have already been leaked. Congress may not like what it reads/learns about how the clearances are issued or adjudicated, but it doesn’t have the authority to do anything about it. If it’s on a fact finding mission, it would make better use of its time with a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report (CRS is like Siri for members of Congress – they ask the questions and a team of researchers delivers) or by visiting ClearanceJobs.com.
DSS and NBIB Battle Over the Background Investigations
The 2017 NDAA required the Department of Defense to create a plan to take over background investigations for DoD personnel. This is a ‘holler back’ from the 1980s when DSS conducted its own investigations and critics argued processing times were too slow and difficult to predict (sound familiar?). DSS is already moving forward with plans, and has gotten sign off from the Secretary of Defense to create a three-year phased plan to take over investigations.
Now Congress is saying – hey, wait – do you think there will be any cost duplication in this transfer? This may have been a question worth addressing before the initial language was included in the NDAA. This may also be a great question for a CRS report. ‘Siri, tell me more about the history behind why OPM began conducting background investigations?’
Security Clearance Reform is needed
Congressional interest in the security clearance process is good. And there’s no doubt Congress is motivated on this issue because of the growing outcry from their constituents who are waiting years for a security clearance determination. Something has to be done. Continuous evaluation is absolutely a step in the right direction. So are changes including the update from the eQIP application system to a brand new eApp. But progress will be slow until the policy changes.
Congress is asking for updates on a framework they know to be decades old. They’re also asking for information to be provided quarterly that anyone can still find online every six months, when the National Industrial Security Program Policy Advisory Committee releases their updates. Their efforts may be better served in creating the kind of change they can deliver on, whether it’s new funding, policy, or pushing for updates to the Federal Investigative Standards.