Optimism, reservations over NBIB

Shutterstock image: a single luminous box among similar grey, ordered boxes.

The new National Background Investigations Bureau is set to launch on Oct. 1 despite ongoing reservations from some in Congress and private industry.

The NBIB will be housed under the Office of Personnel and Management, and will absorb the Federal Investigative Services, the agency currently responsible for performing background checks and security clearances.

The Obama Administration ordered the creation of the new agency in the wake of last year's OPM hack that resulted in the theft of more than 20 million individuals' personal data.

Jim Onusko, the transition leader of NBIB, says the agency is creating eight new key functions and enhancing seven legacy functions. New functions include the establishment of a Senior Executive Service position of enterprise chief.

"That person will be accountable, come to work each and every day to transform the federal investigative process, both by automation and digitization across the entire federal enterprise," he said at a panel discussion at the Intelligence and National Security Summit in Washington D.C.

Additional changes, he said, will include a talent acquisition strategy to improve recruiting, enhancements to civil liberties and privacy and more collaboration with stakeholders to continually identify and refine best practices.

The NBIB will inherit a backlog of more than 500,000 individuals awaiting either their initial security clearance or a reinvestigation for private and public sector positions. That backlog, said panelists, compromises U.S. national security.

"Weapons systems stop getting built," said Doug Thomas, director of counterintelligence operations and corporate investigations at Lockheed Martin. "Research and development of the next generation whatever stops. I mean, it's a big deal."

Panelists also stated that the clearance backlog hinders the hiring of linguists, intelligence analysts, and other key personnel needed to maintain America's intelligence edge.

"I'm a little cynical after so many years of watching this to think that [the backlog is] actually going to be able to get down and stay down," said Katherine Pherson, CEO of Pherson Associates and former Director of the DCI Center for Security Evaluation.

Onusko conceded that speeding up the clearance process will be difficult. It requires increasing staff (some of whom can take years to develop), improving the automation of data collection and analysis, and getting government agencies to transmit information more quickly to NBIB.

The new bureau will not focus solely on initial clearances. It also will seek to develop better systems and procedures to monitor and evaluate employees after they are cleared. Panelists agreed that most insider threats happen after the fact -- that people are turned once they are inside an agency or company.

As a result, a security clearance that does not require a reevaluation for years at a time could miss insider threats.

"How does that play in changing how we do investigations, and how we do security, and how we create the stronger insider threat capability?" asked Onusko.

"Continuous evaluation is not the future, it's the now," said William Evanina, National Counterterrorism Executive at the ODNI.

"The government, honestly, has not done a good job," said Evanina. "And I think the frustration has been with the lack of policy and policy interpretation." He argued that due to conflicting agency and legal interpretations, individuals tend not to come forward with information about suspicious behavior or warning signs a fellow employee might be a security risk.

 "We have to find the most effective way to prioritize, so that we can assure ourselves that the most trusted individuals who have the most access to the most damaging data are getting the full attention," Evanina said.

Ever since the Obama administration announced the creation of NBIB there have been members of Congress arguing that the reform is trying to do too much at once, and questioning the logic of having the Department of Defense build and maintain a secure IT network (at DOD expense) for NBIB. Other members of Congress have expressed concern that NBIB will simply be a rebranding of FIS and won't fully reform the shortcomings of that agency.

Lockheed Martin's Thomas said he is optimistic the NBIB will be a step forward, but said "the jury is still out."

All of the panelists agreed that the next administration needs to make security clearance and monitoring a priority – and to understand the reasons why it needs to be a priority.

"Security should be a priority because no matter what happens to the next administration, there will be a crisis, and it will happen before they are ready for it, and if they can't get cleared people… we are going to be in big trouble," said Pherson.

About the Author

Sean Carberry is a former FCW staff writer who focused on defense, cybersecurity and intelligence.


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