A recent Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on the security clearance process presented an excellent opportunity to shed some light on the future direction of the background investigations and security clearance program. Unfortunately, the hearing created more questions than answers.

Even though the background investigative backlog has been growing steadily since September 2014, it was not until the program was placed on the Government Accountability Office (GAO) high risk list, again, that there now appears to be attention placed on the current state of the program. The chart below shows the progress that was made on meeting Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) timeliness and quality mandates following the transfer of the Department of Defense (DoD) program to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in 2005. But it also shows the 180 degree reversal of that progress resulting from OPM’s disastrous decision to reduce the Federal Investigative Services contractor workforce by almost 65% overnight.

To put the numbers in perspective, in FY2014, when the background investigation program was current, normal investigative workload averaged approximately 160,000 cases (work in progress), with the timeliness of Secret investigations taking 28 days, and Top-Secret 77 days to complete. Unfortunately, today there are currently over 710,000 background investigations pending in the National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB) inventory, with the average Secret investigation “now” taking 132 days and Top Secret taking over 323 days to complete. Even more alarming, approximately 194,000 (28%) of the pending cases are “periodic reinvestigations” for federal employees and contractors already in access.

Understanding the history of the program

The questions by the SIC to the industry and federal panels may have been different had they familiarized themselves with the history of the background investigations program. Backlogs in the PSI program have existed since as early as 1986, when DoD had more than 300,000 overdue reinvestigations, through 2002 when a House Committee report estimated the investigative backlog ranged from 350K to 900K cases. During this same period, Defense Security Service (DSS) data showed that it was taking an average of 403 days to complete “initial” Top Secret investigation and an average of 470 days for Top Secret periodic reinvestigations. Between 1986 and 2005, the Joint Security Commission, Security Policy Board, National Security Council, GAO, DoD OIG, and others all opined on what was best for the PSI program and what changes needed to be made.

Because the DoD program was not resourced properly with the staff and funding necessary to tackle their investigative backlog, DoD attempted to address the shortfall through other means. Their approach included, compromising and ignoring investigative standards, changing the “periodicity” of periodic reinvestigations, changing policies to eliminate investigative coverage, curtailing quality oversight, prematurely implementing an untested case management system that failed, and other unwise practices. In addition, there were multiple “comprehensive reviews” accomplished to address the backlog and reform the investigative process.

Year after year, review after review, report after report was met with the same result: the backlog continued to grow and national security remained at risk. Despite repeated recommendations by GAO and promises by DoD to grow the investigative staff and increase funding to support the PSI program, DoD continued to cut staff and underfund the program. DoD was convinced they could conduct investigations “better, faster, and cheaper” but the record year after year showed they could not.

Security Clearance Reform Efforts in Review

Unfortunately, it appears to be Deja vu all over again. Fast-forward to March 2018 and the SIC hearing, the same proposals made in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s regarding changing standards, increasing risk, and revamping the background investigative process are being made again. During the hearing, statements by DoD panel members strongly suggested that their future plan to perform background investigations more quickly and at less cost would require a “change” to the current investigative standards. Senator Angus King (Maine) came closest to addressing the proposal to change the standards by asking, “do you mean lower the standards”, the response he received from DoD was “it would not be the adjudicative standards but the investigative standards that would change.”

Regrettably, no one during the hearing asked specifically what changes to the standards were being proposed. As someone who has participated in security clearance reform and helped shape the current standards, I can say that, at best, it is a major process foul for DoD to discuss changing standards before coordinating with the Performance Accountability Council and the Security Executive Agent. DoD basically told the Committee that they could save time and money—but only if the ODNI concurred with their proposal to change standards and stop conducting periodic reinvestigations.

In my view, when those who are proposing to change the investigative standards lead their discussion by asking “how much risk we are willing to accept, and how much risk we find acceptable” the proposed changes are moving towards a high-risk model.

Considering the current state of the background investigations program, it is hard to believe that in February 2011, in recognition for meeting important government background investigations milestones, GAO removed the DoD Personnel Security Clearance program from the high-risk list. GAO’s removal of the program from the high-risk list was based upon the “agency’s progress in timeliness and the development of tools and metrics to assess quality, as well as its commitment to sustaining progress.” From 2009 thru 2014, a properly resourced background investigative program met and exceeded Congressional Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) timeliness mandates (28 days for Secret, 77 days for Top Secret, and 38 days for 90% of all initial investigations), implemented government-wide investigative and quality standards, and kept investigative costs flat (less than three percent increase over a 5-year period).

In addition, during this same period, a number of important “government-wide” program improvements were enacted that included; executing new more in-depth federal investigative standards, expanding automated record checks, establishing and implementing accredited training standards for investigators and adjudicators, increasing program cost stability and transparency, establishing and implementing program-wide quality standards, increasing reciprocity, and improving government efficiency. While not perfect, 2009 thru 2014 arguably represented the most successful period of performance during the long-failed history of the PSI program.

The SIC hearing begins another chapter in the difficult and ever-changing history of the background investigations and security clearance program—from privatization of the program in the late 1990’s, to the transfer of the DoD work to OPM in 2005, and now the transfer of the DoD work from OPM back to DoD over the next three years.

We should all be circumspect with regard to the promises made during the hearing by the federal panel. As outlined, ODNI intends, through their “Trusted Workforce 2.0 initiative” (only started this past week), “to identify and establish a new set of policy standards that will transform the U.S. Government’s approach to vetting its workforce, overhaul the enterprise business processes, and modernize information technology.”

It’s an aggressive agenda and schedule considering:

  • It took three years to develop the current 2012 federal investigative standards and three years to implement.
  • The government-wide continuous evaluation program has experienced a 7 year delay and a formalized policy expanding the definition has not been accomplished.
  • It took two years to develop the quality assessment reporting tool (QART) to measure the quality of background investigations.
  • It took three years to develop, accredit, and implement the national training standards for background investigators and adjudicators.

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Merton W. Miller is a retired Colonel and Federal Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, and former Senior Executive with the Federal Investigative Service and National Background Investigations Bureau. His duties assignments included tours as Security Advisor White House Military Office, Assistant Director Office of the Secretary of Defense Counterintelligence, Commander AFOSI Region 6, Director Counterintelligence Field Activity Counterintelligence Campaigns, Associate Director for the Federal Investigative Services, and Deputy Director for NBIB.