New Background Check Director: System ‘Not Where It Needs To Be’


Charles Phalen, appointed director of NBIB about six weeks ago, said the clearance process isn’t fast enough.

About six weeks into his appointment as head of the new background check investigation bureau, Charles Phalen recently enumerated several challenges he's already faced, including reducing the processing time for clearances.

A former background check investigator himself, Phalen helms the new National Background Investigation Bureau, formally stood up in October and housed within the Office of Personnel Management. The Defense Department is handling much of the technological infrastructure supporting NBIB, and recent reports suggest the system itself might not go live for another two years.

While current wait times for clearance are between 95 to over 200 days, Phalen said NBIB is trying to reduce that to 40 to 80—the number of days by which they're legally mandated to deliver secret or top secret clearances.

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“We clearly are not meeting that. My backlog could be 5 million cases and nobody would care, as long as I was still delivering that product in 40 or 80 days," Phalen said at a Professional Services Council event in Washington on Thursday.

Getting agencies to accept trustworthiness assessments conducted for other employees at agencies is also a challenge, and background check information is not easily replicable or reused across agencies, he said. 

“That actually worked pretty well about 10 years ago,” he said, adding that getting back to that point is his goal.

NBIB is designed to "provide the basis for a consistent data collection of that ... makes up some of that personality [or] trustworthiness [assessment], I think we'll be able to get back to where we need on this, but it is not where it needs to be right now."