Security Clearance Reformers Tout Progress Amid COVID-19

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The pandemic pushed adjudicators to conduct more virtual interviews, though that progress might be undone when the crisis passes.

The federal government is in the midst of the biggest overhaul of the security clearance process in the program’s 50-year history, and COVID-19 is pushing some of those reforms along.

After the breach of Office of Personnel Management databases in 2015, the government began a comprehensive restructuring of the clearance process, including establishing the National Background Investigations Bureau, or NBIB. Last year, that office was officially dissolved and merged within the Pentagon’s Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency—formerly the Defense Security Service.

But the process and administrative changes created a hefty backlog of investigations and put a spotlight on archaic processes, such as requiring all interviews—neighbors, spouses, former colleagues—to be conducted in person.

“What we’re really trying to do is get people to work faster, have more mobility and ensure they’re trusted,” William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, told Nextgov last year ahead of the rollout of the new strategy: Trusted Workforce 2.0.

Under the new framework, a group of senior leaders—including Evanina, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security Joseph Kernan and acting Deputy Director for Management at the Office of Management and Budget Mike Rigas, who is also serving concurrently as the acting director of the Office of Personnel Management—is working to remake the adjudication process, automate using technology where possible, and institute a continuous vetting process. This effort is one of the administration’s central Cross Agency Priority, or CAP, goals that underpin the President’s Management Agenda.

In a quarterly update, security clearance leaders noted the current pandemic has accelerated the need for some of these reforms, particularly virtual interviews.

“The officials responsible for personnel vetting policy—the DNI as the executive agent for national security and OPM for suitability and credentialing—permitted agencies, in the case of exigent and rare circumstances, to use alternatives such as virtual interviews and remote records access to minimize face-to-face contact,” the update states. “This flexibility allowed background investigations to continue with minimal disruption and agencies to bring on mission-critical personnel.”

However, this progress is only temporary, as “vetting agencies will resume normal operations and procedures consistent with national and local area guidance” once the crisis passes.

But the biggest milestone for the program this year was getting the government closer to a continuous vetting model. Instead of reevaluating security clearances on a five-year basis, the new system creates a program of constant monitoring for potential areas of concern. Using a mix of human auditors and automation, the program looks at financial records, major life events and social media posts, among other things, to determine whether a clearance holder requires a closer inspection.

While the PAC has been laying the groundwork for this shift for some time, an executive correspondence to agencies signed in February made it official and offered guidance for vetting programs to make the move.

“The executive correspondence instructs agencies to work with ODNI and OPM to begin streamlining their personnel vetting programs in anticipation of forthcoming policy changes aimed at improving the alignment of the processes and criteria for vetting determinations,” the update states, adding that the correspondence “provides minimum standards for continuous vetting.”

The progress update noted the backlog for new clearance determinations hit a steady state in January, dropping below 225,000 cases. That’s a sustainable level, according to adjudicators.

Prior to reaching that steady state, the program was weighed down by an immense caseload that reached a height of 725,000 pending cases.

“The actions taken to reduce the backlog also substantially improved timelines for completion of investigations,” the update states. “The average time to complete a top secret investigation is currently down to 79 days from a high of 411 days, meeting timeliness goals for the first time since June 2014. Timeliness for secret investigations decreased from 173 days to 56 days.”

The update also cited recent appointments and confirmations for key leadership positions, including Ratcliffe’s confirmation as director of national intelligence and Evanina being officially named director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, “a job he held for four years before confirmation was required,” the document notes.

The Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency also received a new director, Bill Lietzau, taking over for Charles Phalen, who ran the NBIB before it moved into the Defense Department.

While the roundup focused on recent accomplishments, there is still much to do on the road to Trusted Workforce 2.0.

One area, in particular, is being reassessed: Development of secure and modern IT systems.

The subgoal includes key milestones with due dates this year:

  • Implement a shared service to provide an unclassified information exchange for ready and efficient access to data, and continue to make iterative improvements.
  • Implement a shared service capability that supports the development of background investigation reports, and continue to make iterative improvements.
  • Implement a shared service capability that supports security or suitability manager functions that take place after adjudication—e.g., reciprocity, visit requests—and continue to make iterative improvements.

All of the milestones—the first due in September and the others in July of this year—were “previously on track” but are now labeled “at risk” as officials go back to the drawing board.

The “strategy for the rollout of shared services is being rebaselined,” the report states, with little additional information.