House panel skeptical of DOD clearance plan

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The Department of Defense is preparing to roll up security clearance investigations in-house, as the civilian agency charged with background checks faces a large and growing backlog. At an Oct. 11 House hearing, members sought assurances from Director of Defense Intelligence Garry Reid that it wasn't just a case of moving money and people around.

In 2016 Congress, frustrated by lengthy wait times and backlogs that have built up in the security clearance process, required DOD to investigate how it might take over background checks and security clearances for its own personnel.

That plan was approved by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in August 2017, and Reid signaled the department's intent to start shifting new investigative casework for agency personnel from the National Background Investigations Bureau to the Defense Security Service in early 2018.

"The Department of Defense is well postured to take these bold steps and cognizant of the risks associated with such endeavors," Reid told the Government Operations Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in his opening statement.

Reid said the department has enrolled over 1.1 million DOD employees and contractors in its continuous evaluation program, which provides ongoing and real-time vetting. He said the department has also implemented several pilots over the past year that leverage big data analytics to scan dozens of publicly available and internal datasets for information on a candidate's criminal and financial status, dramatically reducing the need for in-person fieldwork.

Reid eventually said DOD believes it can complete top secret clearances in 80 days once the department stands up its own process. Meadows questioned whether Reid was considering the scope of the bureaucratic and financial challenges that would come with that process.

However, Reid struggled to answer questions from committee members when pressed for metrics on the performance of pilot programs, indicating that the pilots give the DOD "confidence" that its program will be more efficient.

"Confidence is not quantifiable data," said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Government Operations Subcommittee. "I am skeptical that we are going to get all these unbelievable efficiencies just by moving it from one government agency to another."

Security clearance investigations were big business for the Office of Personnel Management, but a scandal involving its primary contractor and the 2015 hack of its personnel databases including the loss of millions of highly sensitive SF-86 clearance application forms soured many policymakers on OPM in this role. OPM's background check function was reconstituted as the National Background Investigations Bureau in October 2016.

NBIB director Charles Phalen told the panel that press reports of a backlog of more than 700,000 investigations were accurate, but that number isn't equal to the number of individual waiting for adjudication.

The bureau, which is in the process of standing up a DOD-built IT system, is relying more on telephone interviews and has been experimenting with videoconferencing technology to reach interview subjects in combat zones or other areas that are difficult to reach in person to offset the problem of not having enough staff and contract personnel as it builds up capacity.

Phalen said that with additional investigators and a shift of periodic reinvestigations for those with existing clearances to more automated programs like continuous evaluation, the bureau believes it can reduce the backlog from 700,000 to 180,000 in three years. However, he later clarified that this timeline was "terribly optimistic."

Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president at the IT Alliance for Public Sector, cautioned lawmakers that the Defense Security Service may not be well equipped at present to take back DOD investigations. He noted that DSS published a request for information to industry on Sept. 20 to begin developing requirements for investigative contractors.

"The conflation of the reporting timelines, along with the issuance of the RFI, show that this process is anything but collaborative and measured and is not taking into account the detrimental effects it will create on the clearance granting process governmentwide," Hodgkins said.

Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Greg Touhill, who served as federal chief information security officer in the Obama administration, told FCW that the security clearance process is outdated and antiquated. He said better integration of technologies like big data analytics would allow the government to quickly look at large volumes of data for patterns and threat indicators.

"I think most Americans will be patient in making sure we get it right, but if it is taking longer to go through the security vetting process than it takes to conceive, gestate and birth a child, most folks are going to say that's way too long," said Touhill.

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a senior staff writer at FCW, covering governmentwide IT policy, cybersecurity and a range of other federal technology issues.

Prior to joining FCW, Johnson was a freelance technology journalist. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, GoodCall News, Foreign Policy Journal, Washington Technology, Elevation DC, Connection Newspapers and The Maryland Gazette.

Johnson has a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Hofstra University and a Master's degree in public policy from George Mason University. He can be contacted at djohnson@fcw.com, or follow him on Twitter @derekdoestech.

Click here for previous articles by Johnson.


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