ClearanceJobs recently interviewed William Henderson, cofounder of the Federal Clearance Assistance Service and the author of multiple books about the security clearance process. Henderson has worked for both the Defense Security Service and Office of Personnel Management and is in a unique position to shed light on the security clearance process and history of the personnel security program.
The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) required the Department of Defense (DoD) to create a plan to take over its share of background investigations. The 2018 NDAA seems poised to turn those keys over the the DoD. The plan isn’t so much as new, as a return to the way things used to be done – DSS conducted its own investigations through 2005, which it transferred that authority to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). From the beginning, the method of conducting investigations for DSS and OPM was very different.
“There were significant differences in the way DIS and later DSS managed investigations as opposed to OPM,” said Henderson. “In the 1990s OPM privatized their field investigative function with the creation of USIS as an employee stock ownership company and they transferred all of their field work to USIS.”
While DSS depended more on federal investigations and OPM operated with contract investigators, the biggest difference between the two agencies was money – DSS operated with appropriated funds and OPM operated on a fee-for-service basis.
“Federal agency requesters would have to pay OPM for each investigation they requested,” noted Henderson.
The transfer of background investigations to OPM didn’t happen all at once. It was born out of a massive backlog at DSS caused by policy changes and personnel shrinkages.
“In 2000 because of the horrendous backlog that existed at DSS…they transferred cases from DSS to OPM,” said Henderson.
Reasons for the DSS backlog
In the 1990s the investigative standards changed and they started requiring secret periodic reinvestigations at 10 year intervals – and they started requiring periodic reinvestigations for confidential clearances, which had never been required before, noted Henderson.
“Overnight there were 400,000 people who required reinvestigations,” said Henderson. The actual size of the DSS backlog wasn’t released, but at the high point around 2001 it was believed to be near 500,000.
The second issue was the number of investigators – the workforce was reduced from a high of 2500 to approximately 1200 investigators.
“Back then, there was all of this talk about a peace dividend. In reality, the size of DoD decreased, but a larger percentage of people required a clearance,” said Henderson. “The number of security clearance requests never decreased, even with the overall decrease in DoD.”