Getting through a background investigation is nowadays an essential first step to a clearance-level job. Starting next month, however, clearance holders can expect to be continuously under investigation even after they’ve gotten the job. This is due to a new “continuous evaluation” software system, operating under the Department of Defense’s National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC). This system will conduct ongoing scans of public records for any new legal, financial, or other infractions that could jeopardize the jobs or clearances of security clearance holders. This has already caused some concern (particularly in the military community), citing financial issues as potential pitfalls for many.
How Security Clearance reinvestigations work Now
Right now, federal investigators dig into a federal employee’s background when he or she has been newly hired to a clearance-level job. They’ll dig again every 5, 10 or 15 years thereafter in a “reinvestigation” when the individual’s clearance is up for renewal. If the employee falls into financial, legal, or other trouble that could threaten the clearance – a bankruptcy, DUI arrest, etc.—sometime before the next reinvestigation, he or she is supposed to report it to their Facilities Security Officer (FSO) immediately – not wait for the reinvestigation to uncover it.
But many employees don’t report these things – that’s part of why background check investigators expend enormous amounts of time combing through public records for every new clearance or clearance renewal. They need to make sure the individual didn’t withhold some worrisome information.
The Current System Worsens the Security Clearance Backlog
All these hours of investigative work lead to a lengthier background check process for everyone, and ultimately, a growing backlog of pending clearance applications. The Office of Personnel Management’s National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB), which was responsible for all security clearance investigations for most of the government from 2016 until this year, now has more than 700,000 unfinished clearance investigations waiting in queue. Those reports further note that processing times have widened to 259 days for investigations for Secret clearances and 543 days for the fastest 90% of Top Secret clearance investigations, on average.
The Department of Defense is expected to take over NBIB and, with it, all security-clearance oversight operations from OPM, under a proposal the White House issued in June. DoD’s new clearance administration will include a continuous evaluation (CE) system that will routinely check court proceedings, bank and credit bureau records, and other open-source data to look for signs that a current or aspiring clearance holder may be a security risk. If the system finds a potential red flag on an individual, it will alert a human security clearance adjudicator, who will review the finding and decide what action to take on it.
DoD set up its own CE system for its in-house workforce back in 2014. The system went with an initial population of 100,000 personnel under its watch and has added more employees under its scope year by year. Its goal is to cover the entire clearance-holding DoD workforce by the end of fiscal-year 2021.
With DoD’s takeover of all security-clearance investigations from OPM, DoD officials intend to roll out a similar but larger CE apparatus under NCSC management, to run ongoing background checks on all federal security-clearance holders, in DoD and outside it. That’s a bigger job than DoD’s existing system is equipped to handle, so DoD officials recently awarded private developer a $49 million contract to build the new system.
Not Everyone is Excited about the New Continuous Evaluation System
Not all federal agency heads are looking forward to the new system. Some worry that the continuous electronic monitoring will result in immensely increased operational costs and workloads for their own internal staff.
To be fair, some near-term workloads did increase under DoD’s in-house CE. According to DoD data, the system had issued 12,400 alerts as of February 2017. Adjudicators had to sort through and review each one, after which they found that only 2,064 of these alerts were “valid.”
In the final balance, though, defense officials agree that the system is a huge time-saver. By identifying potential security-clearance red flags early on, they said, it enabled human investigators to address each one with the clearance-holder up front. This is a welcome alternative to the current system: leaving it to the investigators to manually dig up the red flags themselves years later during the reinvestigations, then having to adjudicate all of them in the midst of surging clearance application backlogs. Daniel Payne, director of DoD’s Defense Security Services, told reporters that the system might eventually “eliminate the need to do secret-level reinvestigations” altogether.
We will find out in the next few years if DoD’s internal CE system lives up to Payne’s expectations. Meanwhile, we may discover in the coming year if the nascent NCSC-run CE system is able to achieve similar savings in time and labor for the clearance process government-wide.