Is NBIB another 'house of cards'?

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During a recent hearing, lawmakers voiced their frustration over the Obama administration's creation of a new joint venture called the National Background Investigations Bureau and questioned the need to put $95 million of the Defense Department's budget toward it.

"We want to make sure this is not a house of cards," Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.) said during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on security clearance reform held Feb. 25. He asked why the money should come from DOD's budget because the department will not have authority over NBIB.

The bureau, which the White House created on Jan. 22, will be housed at the Office of Personnel Management, and NBIB's leader will report to the OPM director. The $95 million in question -- which was requested as part of President Barack Obama's fiscal 2017 budget -- will go to the Defense Information Systems Agency, which will be responsible for IT design for the new background-check system.

Acting OPM Director Beth Cobert said NBIB will tap DOD's existing capabilities and cybersecurity expertise, and she characterized the $95 million as a one-time investment to cover the costs of modernizing and moving to a new model.

DOD CIO Terry Halvorsen supported Cobert's assertions and said NBIB's creation is an opportunity for the federal government to improve the security of the background-check system. "I will stress again that we will do this in cooperation," he added.

Committee members did not seem convinced, however.

"What happens if you have a disagreement with DOD?" Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) asked Cobert. She responded that DOD would take lead responsibility for the IT systems' security and that OPM would rely heavily on the department's expertise, with DOD providing the funds under what is described as a fee-for-service model.

During the hearing, U.S. CIO Tony Scott challenged lawmakers on the issue of funding. He said it is easier to receive funding to keep legacy systems running, but money for new technology is much harder to come by.

The administration's proposal for a $3.1 billion IT Modernization Fund was raised at the hearing, but committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said agencies have been given $525 billion for IT over the past seven years, "so [3 billion] isn't going to fix it. This is not a funding issue."

"I think we are headed for another disaster," Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) said. "I am telling you you've got to take it a bite at a time." He suggested getting contractors involved to handle the current backlog of clearance investigations. Mica also predicted that the next Congress will be dealing with the same issues.

Cobert, however, said NBIB will be in place by October and fully operational by next year.

A socially challenged process?

Chaffetz also asked the witnesses why the government does not require job applicants -- especially those who are seeking top secret clearance -- to share their social media information as part of the review process.

"What is the hesitation?" Chaffetz asked. When none of the witnesses volunteered a response, he added, "This is the problem -- silence."

Online platforms continue to grow in importance for most Americans, he said, and even the Islamic State group has figured out how to use social media to its advantage. Yet the government has not been able to request information about social media activity as part of the application process.

"We are putting people's lives in danger," he said.

About the Author

Aisha Chowdhry is a former staff writer for FCW.


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