White House announces new agency to handle federal background checks

Shutterstock imag (by Benjamin Haas): cyber coded team.

The White House announced on Jan. 22 the creation of a new agency to take over background investigations.

The Office of Personnel Management's Federal Investigative Services, which currently handles some 95 percent of federal background investigations, will be absorbed by a new joint venture: the National Background Investigations Bureau. The Obama administration's fiscal year 2017 budget request will include $95 million in dedicated IT development funding for the new agency.

The NBIB will report to OPM's director, but the Defense Department will shoulder the entirety of the burden of the new bureau's IT operations, from design all the way through security and operations.

The DOD CIO's office will handle design, while the Defense Information Systems Agency will handle execution, officials said.

"We needed to balance the need for real change with keeping an enterprise wide mindset, leveraging the good work that OPM has already done," said Michael Daniel, special assistant to the president and National Security Council cybersecurity coordinator. "Simply moving this organization would not necessarily make for real significant change."

One of the leading Capitol Hill critics of OPM, however, was not impressed.

"Simply creating a new government entity doesn’t solve the problem," said Rep. Jason Chaffez (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "Today's announcement seems aimed only at solving a perception problem rather than tackling the reforms needed to fix a broken security clearance process."

But the move was welcomed by Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), who sits on the Oversight committee, and who has previously called for security clearance processing to be taken away from OPM. "I am encouraged by today's announcement that the administration will be implementing much-needed changes to the way our government protects what has been described as the 'crown jewels' of intelligence: the background investigations of Americans with security clearances," Lieu said.

And while the specific structure is a new development, changes have been in the works for some time.

Feds have been looking at ways to automate and improve security clearance investigations since at least 2011, and in the wake of last year's massive OPM breach, the Obama administration pushed a 90-day review of the process.

In the near term, the interagency Performance Accountability Council charged with fulfilling the Obama administration's goal of reforming the security clearance process and automating insider threat detection will set up a transition team to help FIS become NBIB.

The target date for the switchover was left unstated.  Federal CIO Tony Scott said they're aiming for a "seamless transition over time."

"I don't want to get into a specific timeline at this point," added Daniel.

For the coming year, the slow roll will be funded by OPM. More funding will likely come through DOD next year. Scott didn't elaborate on resources other than the planned $95 million budget request.

Scott emphasized adaptability and centralized responsibilities as key elements of NBIB plans.

On the contractor side of the equation, meanwhile, the situation is a bit vague.

The Office of Management and Budget, a lead player in the Performance Accountability Council, did not say whether a new line of business dedicated to automated investigations had been set up, or would be soon.

"We are working to put in place new contract vehicles when the current ones expire at the end of this year," OPM Acting Director Beth Cobert said.

Cobert also pointed to the ongoing hiring of 400 new FIS investigators, who will help reduce the security clearance backlog and who will be rolled into the new NBIB.

In a Jan. 22 email to OPM staff, Cobert said the new agency "means that the individuals who work every day to perform the critical mission of conducting background investigations will be empowered with additional tools and increased support to do their vital work."  

"There will be changes," Cobert wrote. "But the day-to-day work of background investigations, and the people who perform them, will continue within OPM."

On the security side, details were similarly scarce, but DOD officials promised to deploy best practices to protect systems and personal information.

Richard Hale, DOD's deputy CIO for cybersecurity, said part of the design approach may include storing information offline, and added that DOD would use encryption "everywhere that's appropriate."

Officials also noted that going forward, security clearance requirements would be stricter -- part of the effort to combat insider threats. Regardless of access level, security clearance holders will be re-investigated every five years, and continuous evaluation programs are in the works to help keep tabs on clearance holders' fitness.

About the Author

Zach Noble is a staff writer covering digital citizen services, workforce issues and a range of civilian federal agencies.

Before joining FCW in 2015, Noble served as assistant editor at the viral news site TheBlaze, where he wrote a mix of business, political and breaking news stories and managed weekend news coverage. He has also written for online and print publications including The Washington Free Beacon, The Santa Barbara News-Press, The Federalist and Washington Technology.

Noble is a graduate of Saint Vincent College, where he studied English, economics and mathematics.

Click here for previous articles by Noble, or connect with him on Twitter: @thezachnoble.

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Reader comments

Sun, Oct 9, 2016

I worked for the Turkeys at OPM from 1974 to 2008. Managers there are incompetent and/or corrupt. They are just like DOD managers who feather the nests of contractors while waiting for that high-paying contractor job offer once retired from federal service. Congressional oversight is no better. NBIB hasn't even gotten out of the starting gate, and the congressional demands for FASTER and FASTER investigations to catch-up the investigative backlog are coming from everyone. That is exactly the mentality that caused the corrupt system between OPM and USIS that led to investigators being told to manufacture FICTIONAL reports of investigations so as to meet deadlines and make higher and higher contractor profit. What a JOKE!!

Tue, Jun 7, 2016 DC Security Clearance Consultants, LLC Washington, DC

New name but still the same management personnel; the same stale and incompetent holdovers from DSS to OPM-FIS will go on with NBIB. What NBIB needs is a complete purging of all upper management personnel who contributed to the many debacles associated with background investigations back from the DSS and OPM-FIS days. As long as those same inept upper management personnel transition to the new NBIB, the problems will not be corrected.

Mon, Jan 25, 2016

and another obama office to screw things up!

Mon, Jan 25, 2016 Vic W. Reston, VA

This is a good move, the DoD have the "right stuff" when it comes to an intelligent, well considered cyber/security design and operations. Where the Federal government has proven itself incapable of protecting our personal information, I absolutely trust the DoD to set that up for the feds... Its a shame that the feds can't seem to get their act together in cyber, so this is a good —but long overdue— move on he part of the White House.

Mon, Jan 25, 2016

This still doesn't solve the problem so long as OPM is still involved in the process.

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