Defense Department Poised to Take Over All Government Background Investigations

Security Clearance pentagon building

(Photo Credit: Master Sgt. Ken Hammond, U.S. Air Force)

For the third time in just the last 18 months, the future direction of the federal government’s background investigations program will change course. In October 2016, following the White House 90-day review addressing the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) data breach, the federal government decided to restructure the Federal Investigative Services and stand up the semi-autonomous National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB) within the OPM to continue conducting 95% of the government’s background investigations, while moving the IT system development and operations to DoD.

With the stand-up of the NBIB just beginning, DoD began lobbying Capitol Hill to challenge the 90-day review decision, requesting language be placed in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) approving the transfer of all DoD background investigative work from NBIB back to the Department. The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) subsequently added the language to the NDAA. In December 2017, following the signing of the 2018 NDAA by the President, “another” new direction for the program was undertaken. Over the next three years, all DoD background investigations would move back to DoD, with the remaining work (about 35%) staying with the NBIB.

NBIB Goes Away

However, a meeting held this past week by Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney with the Department of Defense (DoD), Office of the Director for National Intelligence (ODNI), and Office of Personnel Management (OPM) will mandate another change in direction. The decision coming from the OMB meeting will apparently move the entire federal government’s background investigations program (with a few intelligence community exceptions) to the Department of Defense. Incredibly, in just the past 18 months the federal government has made three separate decisions on the future direction for the background investigations program.

The frequency of change, and the willingness to allow politics versus history to drive decision making, continues to undermine a program struggling to find terra firma to build a plan that would address the backlog of over 725,000 background investigations.  If past history and current capabilities were factors in the most recent decision, the basis for putting the entire federal government’s background investigations under DoD is at best perplexing.

It is pretty remarkable that the federal government would give DoD the entire background investigations program despite the fact the program was taken away from DoD, for cause, through the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act. DoD has not delivered a background investigation in the past 13 years. Even when it did manage its own program, DoD investigations were never timely and current. DoD also currently lacks an IT system capable of processing investigative work. They currently do not have the staff to manage the government’s workload. And it’s currently unclear if they have the framework in place to manage their own investigative work, let alone taking it over for the entire federal government.

Here are some historical factors OMB and others might want to consider before announcing their newest direction for the background investigations program:

  • Backlogs in the DoD PSI program existed from at least 1986 through 2005 (until the program transferred to OPM).
  • A House Committee 2002 report estimated the DoD backlog ranged between 350,000 to 900,000 cases.
  • DoD took 403 days to complete initial Top Secret investigations, 470 days for periodic reinvestigations.
  • Between 1986 and 2005, the Joint Security Commission, Security Policy Board, National Security Council, Government Accountability Office, DoD OIG, and others all criticized the DoD program and recommended major changes.
  • DoD management unsuccessfully implemented several damaging initiatives to try to address the backlog, to include:
    • Changing the periodicity of periodic reinvestigations.
    • Changing policies to eliminate investigative coverage.
    • Curtailing quality oversight.
    • Cutting staff and funding.
    • Prematurely implementing an untested case management system which failed, and increased the backlog.

What’s the better fix? Establish an Independent Agency

In my view, placing the entire federal government’s background investigations program under DoD is a mistake for reasons that go well beyond their past performance history and their lack of current capabilities. Placing background investigations under DoD will result in the program losing any semblance of independence, objectivity, accountability, and government-wide governance. The dependence every federal agency and department will have on DoD will have a devastating impact on their ability to influence policy, affect performance, and ensure program transparency.  Any guess which department’s work will be the priority?

To avoid creating a background investigations monopoly under the Department of Defense and to sustain the current Performance Accountability Council (PAC) and Executive Agent governance structure established under Executive Order 13467, the federal government should strongly consider establishing an Independent Agency (IA) to perform background investigations. Government-wide centralization of the background investigative program has proven, time and time again, the best, most efficient, and cost effective approach for managing and advancing the background investigations program. By establishing an IA with the sole mission to concentrate on all aspects of the background investigations program, the federal government would finally be putting in place the structure necessary to focus on this important national security function. Some of the IA’s primary responsibilities would include:

  • Report and be accountable to the PAC and Executive Agents.
  • Safeguard government-wide governance, control, and performance accountability.
  • Guarantee costs are balanced and transparent across the federal government.
  • Develop program IT strategy and deliver system requirements and system development (case management should be first priority).
  • Advance standards for/and centralize information collection, documentation, and records management.
  • Oversee the structure, validation, and integration of automated record checks, and align investigative activities to support government-wide continuous evaluation (CE) and insider threat efforts .
  • Establish and maintain program-wide quality and training standards.

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.