A friend recently asked me what I thought of the Department of Defense taking over the security clearance background investigations for the entire federal government. My honest assessment is that at worst, it will be a zero-sum, no better, but no worse. At best, however, it will light a fire under the backsides of those who are responsible for the majority of the delays.
To review…the National Background Investigation Bureau (NBIB) handles 95 out of 100 federal government background investigations. As recently as April, there was a backlog of 725,000 of what the bureau calls “investigative products.” These range from “simple record checks” to labor-intensive Single Scope Background Investigations required for Top Secret clearance. In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee last Wednesday, NBIB Director Charles S. Phalan, Jr. reported that while the bureau receives 55,000 new cases every week, it completes 59,000.
That’s a significant reduction, but it raises some questions.
Phalan said the NBIB has increased its investigative workforce by 51 percent in the last two fiscal years. The bureau now employs “nearly 8,800 Federal investigators and contractors.” This is largely responsible for the reduction. In the NBIB’s report for the second quarter of Fiscal Year 2018 (January through March of 2018), the average waiting time for an initial Top Secret clearance was 543 days… a year and a half. Top Secret reinvestigations, the renewal of existing clearances, took an average of 697 days… a month shy of two years.
The investigation phase accounted for the bulk of that time: 472 days for an initial TS and a whopping 560 days for a TS renewal. The addition of roughly 2,900 new investigators aids the speeding of investigations, but they’re not the only factor. Phalan’s opening statement did not address the adjudication process, where someone reviews the information gathered by the investigators and applies the adjudicative guidelines to determine if an applicant is suitable for access to classified information.
For the TS clearances above, that phase took only 20 days for initial clearances, but a whopping 93 days for reinvestigations. I’d like to hear why reinvestigating someone who has theoretically worked under the semi-watchful eye of a security manager for the last five years requires more than four and a half times as long to process as someone who has never held a clearance. Are they prioritizing getting new hires cleared and on the job? Is there a reason that existing employees need greater scrutiny? Or are they cutting corners somewhere?
That last question is my greatest fear as NBIB clears the backlog. In the Department of Veterans Affairs, we saw that administrators manipulated their wait-time statistics to meet their targets. As we hear the good news stories of reduced clearance backlogs, I’m left with the nagging feeling—admittedly with no evidence of any wrongdoing—that the process is suffering.
The bulk of the discussion has been on the part that takes the bulk of the effort. The use of automation and “big data analytics” can help speed the investigative process. My own worry is what happens once that data collection is complete. The disparity in processing times between Secret and Top Secret, and between initial clearance and reinvestigation don’t make much sense to me.
I only hope that it doesn’t take a security breach by a person whose background should have been looked at in more detail to discover that the backlog was cleared by a lack of rigor.