The Department of Defense’s planned takeover of its security clearance investigations from the National Background Investigations Bureau may only add to the clearance backlog rather than alleviate it, according to concerns expressed by members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
“Though DOD has put out a plan for how it would take over investigations, it has yet to issue much in the way of an argument as to why it should do so. There are much clearer reasons for why it should not,” said Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga. “The ongoing reform effort could be slowed or abandoned altogether as DoD spends its institutional energy simply recreating what already exists at NBIB.”
Due to longstanding security clearance backlogs, the Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act would transfer responsibility for conducting Pentagon employee background investigations from the NBIB, established in 2016, back to the DoD.
However, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-DC, said when the DoD did have its own process for security clearances prior to 2005, it was determined to be inefficient. She added that the DoD’s ;plan for assuming responsibility raised “serious concerns,” as it would take the department three years of overlap to assume responsibility of the program. Those years of overlap could result in duplicative efforts that slow down the process even further.
Through the NBIB, the Office of Personnel Management has struggled to get back to the level of security investigations conducted in 2014, when they had to terminate work with a contractor that accounted for approximately 60 percent of the investigation work.
“The current backlog is largely due to termination of the contract that U.S. Investigation Services had with the Office of Personnel Management to conduct background checks,” said Norton, noting that the company was caught dumping cases and claiming they had been complete without proper reviews.
“That was about a 60 percent loss of capacity in the space of just a handful of single-digit weeks, almost overnight. And it has taken to now to build up that capacity contractually and through federal hires,” said Charles Phalen, director of the NBIB. “We had a goal in 2017 and we missed it by about 6 percent, but we are at or near the level of contract investigations and federal investigators that we had in 2014. We’ve recovered to that level. As of today, that number is a little over 6,900 federal equivalent investigators working on our behalf. We have a target to grow that number.”
He added that his department plans to improve the use of investigator time by implementing new technologies.
Part of those new technologies come through the startup of the National Background Investigative Service program, which Phalen said will serve as the IT system for the whole of government to perform background investigations, and will enable them to phase out legacy systems.
According to Garry Reid, the director of defense intelligence in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, the NBIS will still be supported after clearance investigations transfer to the DoD.
“We will remain committed to our task to design, build and operate, secure and maintain the National Background Investigative Service (NBIS) that Mr. Phalen referred to,” Reid said. “This is the single end-to-end IT-shared service solution for all personnel vetting in the government, not only for NBIB but for other federal agencies that conduct background investigations. DoD will remain committed to resourcing NBIB and NBIS throughout this transition.”
However, Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president of the public sector at the Information Technology Alliance, worried that creating an entirely new background investigation service within the DoD would cause the government to compete against itself for limited resources, such as adjudicator manpower.
“Industry has consistently supported the concept of a singular, standardized clearance investigation across the government enterprise, and would oppose efforts like Section 938 of the Senate National Defense Authorization Act to bifurcate the process,” Hodgkins said. “Such an action would exacerbate, not relieve the existing backlog, and would allow agencies to silo their behavior regarding how they adjudicate and reciprocally treat clearances.”
Should the Senate version of the NDAA pass, the Pentagon’s Defense Security Services would be responsible for carrying out the transfer of responsibility no later than Oct. 1, 2020.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.