If you live in Washington, D.C., there are frequent jokes about things moving at the pace of government. The other adage is that to the extent things do change, there’s a good chance they’re changing back to the way they were done in years prior (government doesn’t so much reinvent itself as it merely resurrects itself).
The Department of Defense is hoping for this logic as it pushes through a plan to take over background investigations from the beleaguered National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB). If you have a really long memory, you may recall the Department of Defense did run its own background investigations, and at the time, it was accused of being inefficient, unmodern and far too slow. To help the government innovate and introduce efficiencies, background investigations were transferred over to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), who largely outsourced the work to several contracting firms, and controlled more than 95 percent of all background investigations conducted across the government.
Congress, the NDAA and NBIB
In congressional testimony yesterday, the Department of Defense testified that it should take background investigations back. It argued everything the NBIB does, it could do better – but it didn’t actually offer any specifics as to why that would be the case. The closest it got was noting that its use of Continuous Evaluation would allow it to automate much of the background investigations process and eliminate the need for background investigators to be doing the leg work behind Periodic Reinvestigations or initial Secret investigations.
Congress asked for this move when it required the Department of Defense to create a plan for taking over its own background investigations in the language of the National Defense Authorization Act. The DoD did just that, and got Secretary of Defense James Mattis to sign off on a three-year phased plan to transfer background investigations over to DoD hands. All signs seem to be pointing toward a DSS takeover of the background investigations process, but Congress would have to codify that in its next or subsequent NDAA – and it’s not quite ready to do so.
“Moving something from one bucket of the government to another bucket of the government does not necessarily create efficiencies,” noted House Oversight and Government Reform Government Operations Subcommittee Chairman Mike Meadows (R-NC). “I’m not about allowing DoD and OPM to do the same thing.”
Meadows pushed back during congressional testimony, asking Gary Reid, Director of Defense Intelligence, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, several questions related to how, specifically, the DoD could do things better than OPM. Reid struggled to offer specifics, only reiterating multiple times about DoD’s ‘confidence’ in their systems.
The matter will likely be determined in the next few weeks. Language in the Senate version of the 2018 NDAA already gives DoD permission to take over its new investigations, and the House is in conference on the NDAA to fine tune its own version now.
The congressional hearing ended with Meadows issuing homework to both the DoD and NBIB. DoD was directed to provide information about what duplicative services it would have with NBIB, and anything it would not be providing that NBIB currently does.
NBIB Director Charles Phalen was clearly trying to play it cool in the hearing, presenting only facts and not necessarily taking the DoD bait to push back on why it needs to exist at all. Meadows requested NBIB follow up with three issues it has with the DoD plan.
I doubt it will be hard.
3 Issues with the DoD Plan to Take Over Investigations
I’m investigator agnostic. As long as security clearances are being issued, I don’t have a particular bent toward who’s conducting them. Other writers at ClearanceJobs.com have strong opinions about which contract firms they prefer, whether or not background investigations should be insourced or outsourced, and how field offices should be structured. We’re a big, fat, ClearanceJobs family with lots of differing opinions on these issues. What matters to everyone is the quality and efficiency of the process, and in my, personal opinion, the current proposal has a few flaws.
1. Robbing Peter to Pay Paul
The Request for Information the DoD released seeking contractor support for its new background investigation mission was far from innovative. In fact, it’s incredibly likely they obtained information from only the existing prime and subcontractors working for the NBIB today. If DoD plans to hire its background investigators from the key players existing already, it will probably only create turnover and churn in the workforce, or result in new, inexperienced investigators. Competition is generally good, and if this competition were to result in background investigators finally getting a pay raise and making a living wage, I would be on board. But in the short term, with a 700,000 case backlog, DoD’s use of the same contract firms as NBIB is likely to create a market shortage that may crash the system.
2. Technology Can’t Replace People
The DoD plan weighs heavily on automation being able to replace people. And while I’m the first to say I can’t wait for my office’s help desk to be replaced by robots, I do have issues with background investigators being replaced by automation – unless I know what that automation is. DoD is incredibly cryptic about what providers it’s using for its Continuous Evaluation (CE) program. Before I get on board with replacing a Secret security clearance investigation I would like to know what the CE program looks like. I don’t need Uncle Sam to lift up his skirt and show me the classified details, but we need some assurances this program is gathering the right information, at the right time, through the right vendors. As of now, I haven’t even been able to get information on who’s running the CE program, and whether or not they’re protecting security clearance holders’ data adequately.
3. Industry Isn’t On Board
No one is hurt by the current security clearance delays more than industry. The government can and does expedite clearances for its own workers. Government contractors automatically fall to the bottom of the pile. You would think this cadre would be petitioning congress for a DoD takeover. They aren’t. Industry organizations are largely mum, or are arguing to give NBIB a longer chance to see what it can do. In the congressional testimony, A.R. “Trey” Hodgkins, Senior Vice President of the IT Alliance for the Public Sector, said he had serious concerns that DoD’s plan takes no account for the detrimental effects it will take.
“As we move to reform the process, industry remains agnostic as to who “owns” the security clearance process; we are, however, resolute that any bifurcation to the process would only cause greater wait times, inefficiencies, waste taxpayer dollars, potentially create greater vulnerabilities, and undermine achieving a truly reformed clearance process,” Hodgkins wrote in his prepared remarks.
I’ll throw in a bonus point of concern – call me crazy, but I’m still trying to wrap my head around why DSS Director Dan Payne referred to his cleared workforce as full of pedophiles and murderers. He has been an open critic of the interim security clearance process. If you think the security clearance process is broken now, wait until you stop issuing interim security clearances. I believe Payne’s remarks were meant to draw attention to how broken the system is under NBIB. But DSS, like all government agencies, maintains the right to adjudicate – and remove- security clearances for its own workers. If that system is broken, it’s something DSS should fix today – not in the next NDAA.
DoD is clearly fully capable of conducting a high quality background investigations program. The question should be less about whether or not its suited for this capability than about how it could do so while making significant, policy driven improvements in personnel and national security. Until that plan is issued, it’s impossible to say what is in the best interests of current clearance applicants – other than don’t hold your breath waiting for a shorter clearance processing timeline.