Included in the sweeping federal government reforms announced by the White House today is the plan to overhaul the security clearance background investigation process, placing it under the control of the Department of Defense. The White House’s official government reform and reorganization plan includes several pages outlining the plan to transfer control of the National Background Investigations Bureau, which was created in October of 2016 and lives under the Office of Personnel Management, to DoD.
“The transfer provides the opportunity to achieve an efficient, effective, fiscally viable, and secure operation that meets all agencies’ needs. It avoids a variety of potential problems inherent in splitting the existing program into two pieces, and provides the means to achieve bold, transformative reform in the manner in which background investigations are conducted. The opportunity exists to improve timeliness, strengthen management of sensitive information and ensure a more trusted workforce,” the report states.
The announcement comes after months of rumors that an executive action was impending. When the National Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 2017 gave the DoD authority over its own investigations, many – including leadership within NBIB itself – questioned the duplicity of NBIB continuing to conduct investigations when 70 percent of its current work volume is DoD work.
The transition will be a multi-year effort, just as the NDAA’s plan to transfer just DoD investigations was pitched as a three-year phased approach. The Performance Advisory Council, a cross agency organization designed to provide accountability to the President’s management agenda and goals, has oversight of the transition and ongoing reform efforts. The White House indicates the Security Executive Agent – the Director of National Intelligence – and the Suitability and Credentialing Executive Agent – the Director of OPM – will remain in their security clearance policy and oversight roles.
This is the aspect of the announcement that is perhaps the most difficult to envision. Over the past several years, the government has struggled to cohesively implement standards. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released in November of 2017 criticized the government’s inability to successfully implement a continuous evaluation (CE) program. With a lack of guidance from the Security Executive Agent (ODNI), DoD simply created a program of its own. The problem? That system didn’t feed into other government agencies, and simply exacerbated problems of reciprocity and inconsistency.
If DoD and ODNI are unable to come to a consensus on policy moving forward, it’s unclear what will happen. Like CE, the DoD could simply move forward and implement a plan on its own. But if ODNI pushes back and refuses to adjust policy (including current guidelines concerning periodic reinvestigations), DoD could have a serious problem of over-promising what it will be able to accomplish for the security clearance mission, without fully delivering it.
NBIB and DSS – together forever as friends
While it’s unclear how DoD and the Security Executive Agent will work together, it’s clear the leadership within NBIB and DSS are trying diligently to reassure their workforce that this is a good thing, for the mission and the people. A joint letter to DSS and NBIB staff notes that the work to coordinate a transfer has already begun – even as both agencies await further executive guidance.
“Though the effective date is yet to be determined, we have already established working groups that will work in earnest to accomplish this transfer quickly and efficiently. We understand the importance of open and transparent communication with all NBIB and DSS personnel, and will provide you frequent updates and future opportunities to get answers to the questions you will have as we progress” states a letter signed by both NBIB Director Charles Phalen and DSS Director Daniel Payne.
The letter even ends with the optimistic salutation, “Looking Toward the Future!”
Both men have good reason to try to enthuse their workforces. The last thing the beleaguered security clearance process can take is an exodus of trained investigative staff. Given the lengthy process required to hire and train background investigators, the real trick in transferring the background investigation roles and responsibilities to DoD control will be to ensure they’re also able to transfer the investigators.