After months of prompts that ‘any day now‘ a signed executive order would transfer the security clearance background investigation function from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to the Department of Defense, yesterday President Trump signed the order to make the transfer – already well underway by most accounts – official.
The executive order ushers in a new agency to take on the personnel security mission – the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA). The move guts OPM, where the more than 8,000 security clearance background investigators made up the majority of the workforce.
Just last month Defense Security Service and National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB) leaders assured stakeholders that the transfer would be ‘seamless‘ – and that when the new fiscal year rolled around October 1, there would be no noticable differences in how cases were submitted or completed.
The executive order promises that transition will take place even sooner, with a deadline of no later than June 24 for the entire background investigations mission to be transferred from OPM to DCSA.
“The DCSA shall serve as the primary entity for conducting effective, efficient and secure background investigations for the federal government for determining whether covered individuals are or continue to be eligible for access to classified information or eligible to hold a sensitive position,” the executive order states.
Clearance Policy Overhaul Well Underway
The transfer comes two years after NBIB Director Charles Phalen argued the security clearance process was in need of major overhaul – and that change needed to happen at the policy level. “Everything we do is based on a policy,” said Phalen. “We don’t make that stuff up, someone else made that stuff up for us years ago.”
NBIB identified multiple pain points in the process and began efforts to improve processing times, including allowing some phone and video-teleconferencing for security clearance interviews. Launched more than a year ago, the Trusted Workforce 2.0 effort, announced by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), looks to expand upon those changes with even more significant overhauls of the background investigation process, from reducing adjudicative criteria to creating a new matrix for establishing who is trustworthy based on the ‘whole person‘ concept.
The More Things Change…
This isn’t the first time the DoD has had the background investigations mission. Prior to 2005, DSS was in charge of background investigations, and it faced similar – if not more intense – scrutiny than NBIB received in the heat of the reform talks. Among the issues were a significant backlog of pending cases, an inadequate number of investigators, and issues of quality (sound familiar?) In the wake of these issues, the background investigations mission was transferred from DoD to OPM.
The good news about this most recent change is that the move extends beyond simply transferring authority, but comes with a major overhaul of the process. Simply transferring investigations from one three letter agency to another does not solve your problems, as the House of Representatives pointed out when they heard from government leaders about the proposal in 2017.
“Moving something from one bucket of the government to another bucket of the government does not necessarily create efficiencies,” noted House Oversight and Government Reform Government Operations Subcommittee Chairman Mike Meadows (R-NC) in the 2017 hearing. “I’m not about allowing DoD and OPM to do the same thing.”
It seems, neither was the White House. The change ensures no duplicative efforts on the part of two organization, and for the first time, rolls up the investigation, adjudication, IT, and continuous vetting mission into one organization. DCSA is tasked with far more than conducting background investigations. Perhaps the most significant mission for the bouncing baby agency is implementing Continuous Evaluation (CE), the golden egg DSS officials continually touted as their key to reducing costs and improving security clearance processing times.
CE has already been implemented for more than 1.1 million security clearance holders – which means it still has a couple more million to enroll. Implementing CE across the cleared workforce will be the first major hurdle for the government’s newest agency to tackle, as well as assuring stakeholders that as this change takes place, everything truly will continue to be not just ‘business as usual’ – but better.