Senators want details on new background check bureau

Shutterstock image: Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

Two leading Democrats on the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee want details on efforts to transform the federal security clearance and background check process.

In a May 18 letter to Office of Personnel Management's acting Director Beth Cobert, Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and John Tester  (D-Mont.) are probing how OPM is moving from the old Federal Investigative Services to the planned National Background Investigations Bureau.  

The White House announced the creation of NBIB on Jan. 22, saying it would take over background investigations after the massive breach of OPM data that affected more than 20 million federal employees and their families.

In the wake of that breach, federal CIO Tony Scott said he has been meeting regularly with OPM and Defense Department officials on issues arising from the OMP breach, including the establishing the NBIB. The Federal Investigative Services, which currently handle some 95 percent of federal background investigations, will be absorbed by NBIB.

The letter asked for estimates on the costs to establish the new bureau, documentation of day-to-day activities, budgeting, a timeline for specific changes that will be made to it to differentiate it from the old FIS, staffing levels and other details.

The senators also want to know what agencies are being tasked with developing the IT infrastructure for NBIB, and for any case management system utilized by the agency. Additionally, they want to know if contractors are to be used, or in-house government personnel.

According to the White House memo announcing NBIB, the Department of Defense has the responsibility for "design, development, security, and operation of the background investigations IT system" to be used by the new agency, which will still be housed at OPM.

McCaskill and Tester wrote: "We are concerned that this transition is moving forward without firm plans in place for the transition, operation, and oversight of the new bureau. We also want to ensure that the NBIB will not simply be a new name for the FIS. Instead, it is critical that you make significant structural changes to improve the integrity, management and oversight of the security clearance process."

Tester was a bit more blunt in a May 18 statement. "We can't screw around with background checks, this is a serious national security issue," he said.  "While I appreciate efforts to strengthen investigations and address serious problems with the system, we'd better not be putting lipstick on a pig and calling it reform."

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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